What Does the ‘Post-Liberal Right’ Actually Want?

May 13, 2022

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“It begun to dawn on many conservatives that in spite of apparent electoral victories that have occurred regularly since the Reagan years, they have consistently lost, and lost overwhelmingly to progressive forces,” Patrick Deneen writes in a recent essay titled “Abandoning Defensive Crouch Conservatism.” He goes on to argue that conservatives need to reject liberal values like free speech, religious liberty and pluralism, abandon their defensive posturing and use the power of the state to actively fight back against what he calls “liberal totalitarianism.” To progressive ears, these kinds of statements can be baffling; after all, Republicans currently control a majority of state legislatures, governorships and the Supreme Court, and they are poised to make gains in the midterm elections this fall. But even so, there’s a pervasive feeling among conservatives that progressives are using their unprecedented institutional power — in universities, in Hollywood, in the mainstream media, in the C-suites of tech companies — to wage war on traditional ways of life. And many of them have come to believe that the only viable response is to fight back against these advances at all costs. It’s impossible to understand the policies, leaders, rhetoric and tactics of the populist right without first trying to inhabit this worldview. That is why, for this second conversation in our series “The Rising Right,” I wanted to speak with Deneen. He is a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, and his 2018 book, “Why Liberalism Failed,” has become a touchstone within the conservative intelligentsia and was even fairly well received by liberals. But since then, Deneen’s writing has come to express something closer to total political war. And with three other professors, he recently started a Substack newsletter, “The Postliberal Order,” to build the kind of intellectual and political project needed to fight that war. This is a conversation about what Deneen’s “postliberal” political project looks like — and the tensions and contradictions it reveals about the modern populist right. We discuss (and debate) Deneen’s view that conservatives keep losing, why he believes the left is hostile to the family, whether America needs stricter divorce laws, what the post-liberal right would actually do with power, the virtues and vices of policy analysis, whether post-liberals have built their core arguments around an invented straw man liberalism, Joe Biden’s agenda for families and much more. Mentioned: “A Good That Is Common” by Patrick Deneen “Replace the Elite” by Patrick Deneen “Abandoning Defensive Crouch Conservatism” by Patrick Deneen Book recommendations: The New Class War by Michael Lind Dominion by Tom Holland The Art of Loading Brush by Wendell Berry Thoughts? Guest suggestions? Email us at ezrakleinshow@nytimes.com. You can find transcripts (posted midday) and more episodes of “The Ezra Klein Show” at nytimes.com/ezra-klein-podcast, and you can find Ezra on Twitter @ezraklein. Book recommendations from all our guests are listed at https://www.nytimes.com/article/ezra-klein-show-book-recs. “The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Annie Galvin, Jeff Geld and Rogé Karma; fact-checking by Michelle Harris and Rollin Hu; original music by Isaac Jones and Jeff Geld; mixing by Jeff Geld; audience strategy by Shannon Busta. Our executive producer is Irene Noguchi. Special thanks to Kristin Lin and Kristina Samulewski.


I'm Ezra klein. This is the show, Yeah, mm hmm. There is a howling sense of loss and fear animating the modern right belief that progressives won the culture war took over american institutions and are intent on nothing less than driving their enemies into the sea


the progressive side. This mentality can be a little baffling, have democrats really one that much and if so, why does so much feel so frustrating? Why can't joe biden pass a climate bill or a public option or universal pre K or voting rights


I used to call this the, the Iron Law of opposition. The other side always looks more ruthless, organized and effective to their opponents than they do to themselves. But politics runs on feeling much more than on fact. So whether this perspective on american politics is true, you cannot understand the views, the rhetoric, the tactics, the leadership of the rising populist right without first trying to inhabit the way they see politics over the past a few decades. So that's what we're gonna do today. But I want to take a moment to set up this argument because

this conversation

and some of the very real surprises it contains is going to make much more sense with a little more context. My guest today is Patrick Deneen, he's a professor of political science at the University of Notre dame. He's author of the book, why liberalism failed and co author of the sub stack the post liberal order and demean is fascinating to me because he has undergone this profound radicalization just in the time I've

known him

Why liberalism failed, came out in 2018 and received a very respectful hearing among liberals, who are grappling with some of the same questions and problems

that he was Barack Obama even

promoted it on his books. I'm reading list. But since then Dinneen has moved towards embracing something more like total political war, counseling conservatives to abandon niceties like pluralism, to use the power of the state, to crush their enemies and

to treat this

moment at every level as a civilisational struggle. In an essay called abandoning defensive Crouch Conservatism, Deneen describes the world he sees, quote, the

national trajectory

Over the past 75 years has been one of a continuous movement to ever more extreme forms of liberalism, and that if you're liberal may sound

good to you, but but he

doesn't think so. He writes, Liberalism's internal logic leads inevitably to the evisceration of all institutions that were originally responsible for fostering human virtue, family, and no billing friendship, community, university politi church. In another essay, he writes, Liberalism offered to humanity a false illusion of the blessings of liberty at the price of social solidity. It turns out that this promise was yet another tactic employed by an oligarchic order to strip away anything of value from the week. And as that quote suggests, Deneen doesn't see the problems of modern America as an accident. He sees it as malice, Take a speech at the 2021 National Conservatism Conference in it. He attacks America's ruling leeds quote, who have mutually benefited from the decimation of the working class of all races in this country and of all geographic regions

of this country.

The full flowering of the reality of this ideology reveals it to be an ideology of rap in and plunder the stripping of the wealth from a ship that they are sinking while busily stalking the lifeboats until the last moment when they will be able to cut loose. If you see your enemies like that, if you see them as that sinister, but

also as

always winning as having an almost unbroken record of success. Well then of course the stakes are high. Of course you would do almost anything to defeat them. But for all the force of Janine's rhetoric, for his fury at people like, I mean, I guess me who he believes have destroyed the country he loves. I

often find it hard to figure out what

he's actually saying should be done what he would do or counsel others to do with the power he wants, the right to win and wield so ruthlessly. And so I asked him on the show to tell me one quick note, we taped this episode before the elite opinion overturning roe leaked. So just keep that in mind as

always my email

for guest suggestions, things I

should read or watch or

hear feedback is as a client show at Ny Times dot com. Okay, Patrick

Deneen, welcome to the

show. Thanks for having me back Ezra. So you and I I think we're going to have some pretty real disagreements here. And so I thought it'd be good to begin with some goals for the conversation. So I want to better understand how the world looks and feels to you because when I read the way you describe it, it's not always how I recognize it. And I want to get a more specific understanding of what you do with power. And I want to try to make my positions a little more real to you

because I don't always recognize

myself in how you see my side of the

debate. But I also

want to ask the same of you that if there are some goals you have for the conversation. Sure. Well, in some

ways I wonder

whether we see a lot of the same things

and understand

them differently or if we really just see fundamentally different things. So that's one of my goals. Yeah, I think that's a very good framing question. So then let's begin here. What is defensive Crouch conservatism? So, this is an adaptation of a

Phrase that I 1st

encountered actually

in a blog post

by Mark Tushnet, the law professor at Harvard University who


and called for an end of Defensive


Liberalism or Progressivism


accused the progressives, especially in the court of seeking too little and of achieving too little of the ends and purposes

of the progressive


And this is

one area where as a conservative,

I see the

world in completely opposite ways

in which

progressives have achieved a lot of the ends that they've set for themselves. The goals keep getting further pushed further,

but their

goals seem to be achieved through such institutions as the court in

recent years.

Whereas the goals that at least

once were stated



or positions that were desirable to conservatives

have been

increasingly abandoned in the

face of that advance.

And so I wrote a piece for a sub stack that I

write for called

Post Little Liberal Order, in which I called for the end of Defensive

Crouch, Conservatism,

in other words,

not merely

retreating to the

next most


place, but

rather seeking

to advance

to a goal, a place, a space

that represented

more of an advance than a place of defense.

I want to

hold in the rash human nature, a victory here

for a minute. Because

as you say, you took the inspiration of that from a law professor who believes

that liberals,

particularly in

judicial issues

have gotten nowhere and have completely given up on on their long term goals and are in a

pure defensive

Crouch. So what do you think we're not saying about you when you write that since the Reagan years, conservatives have consistently lost and lost overwhelmingly to progressive forces. Tell me what you've lost,

what is the bill

Of what progressives have 1? Well, I mean, I guess we could look at a couple

of areas. So one

would certainly be that set of issues that are related to

family and sexuality.

And so, you know, a generation or two generations


the burning issues were whether divorce

should be either

legalized or liberalized divorce laws,

other burning

issues was premarital

sex and whether that was or

should be normalized. Things like

gay marriage weren't on the

horizon at that point, but they were

issues often related to


as related to especially heterosexuals. We're

now in a place where most of those issues

aren't even debates, it would more or less

regard those as settled. And indeed we're at the point now where what was

once a hotly debated

topic just

a decade ago, right


less. So when Obama

ran in his first term, you know, he had to sort of publicly felt that he had to publicly declare

that he was not in favor of gay

marriage, that position was

relatively briefly

held whether genuinely held or

not, but it was deemed to be

politically expedient

at the time. And

I think people on both the left and

right regard that issue as

largely settled today. So where,

once there was a kind of sense

that we're defending traditional

institutions relating

to human


human marriage.

Um, the

the norms

of marriage,

the governing

customs that

shaped and


human sexual relationships were in a completely different place today

in that regard.

And so today

the battles tend to be fought

more along the lines

of how

far should the

kind of now dominant,

much more liberalized

understanding of these

these kinds of

issues, How

far should these extend into the very

institutions that

once or even today hold traditional

views of these relationships

and in particular church and church affiliated

institutions? And so

we've gone from a world in which you once had

to use the Reagan era. You

once had claims about the

moral majority

to an era in

which now

many of the battles that take place are between those who seek to

advance a

progressive agenda and those who are trying to

create a kind of

shield of religious liberty

behind which

their institutions,

to the extent that they have

any health in them and

vitality their institutions

can remain

in some ways, their

own. That's a very different place that we've

traveled from,

You know, the 19

80s and 40 years later to today.

What's interesting about that account to me is it that I would probably agree that issues of human sexuality are almost unique in the political environment For how much change has been in 30 years, let's call it. But when you write about the political atmosphere, you

read very broadly

right, you didn't say in that sentence, I quoted the conservatives have lost on issues

of human sexuality,

you say they've lost. I mean, Mark

Tushnet in his

piece is not primarily


about issues of human sexuality. He looks around and thinks we've lost. And he's talking about things like campaign finance funding and reform obviously, where the court seems to be going on abortion,

is is to

de liberalize it,

but across

a broad range of questions of business regulation


universal insurance, of how

taxes and tax increases are understood

in the electorate that

to progressives,

there's no narrative

of overwhelming victory

here, and in fact, there's a deep feeling of continuous disappointment and unfulfilled expectation. Do you think you might be over reading one


area as a generalized

able fact about

politics? I

actually think that

it's precisely in many

of the what you regard as the losses or the lack of advances for the progressive cause, that has actually led to something of a kind of

realignment that we're

seeing in our

politics today, and that is to say, the people who have been,

I would gather, I would guess, I would stipulate who have been most negatively affected by what the


triumphs of conservatives so called,

which I would call, you know, which

I think we would agree probably what we would call them neo


economic libertarians. That these triumphs have fallen particularly hard on the working classes, the lower classes, regardless of race in the United States.

And has led

to not only, of course the rise of a you know, on the one hand, to push back

against some of the woke


on the more social

conservative side, but have also

led on the right to an

internal battle

in which

the progressive

side of the Republican

Party is seeking to overthrow, overturn limit, if not outright banish

the more

economically libertarian figures

and share many of the same

concerns that you just expressed about the lack of success among in the progressive movement on many of those issues. So, one

thing you say in this piece is it

conservatives, in your view,

have spent several decades denying that objective

truth. Had any claim in

the political order? What

is objective truth?


I guess, you know, we might agree on some things as

being objective truth,

that human beings need seem to require certain kinds

of conditions to flourish.

If we want proof about this nature of human reality, we might turn to the occasional social science study that demonstrates that

when human

beings have very limited sphere of friendships and relationships, they tend to be unhappy, the more they feel isolated, the more various kinds of pathologies arise. Obviously, the less economic support they have the provisions that are material and needed

for life, the

more likely they are to develop certain kinds

of both

health, as well as mental pathologies.

These both

economic and relational


have been under continual assault

from both the left and the

right, I would argue. And that was the argument of my last book why liberalism failed

that both the left and the right

in their various liberal guises have advanced an economic program

and a social

program that has particularly affected in a negative way, those of less means

and less education

in our country. And of course here reality again, what is truth reality again, intrudes in the form

of deaths

of despair, suicides or overdoses, all

kinds again of both health and mental

pathologies that

we see in the country

today. And here, I would

Say that this is one area where we

we might disagree

on the causes. But I think we would probably recognize

in the sort of feedback from the world that we recognize and that we can objectively sort of

study that we would

say this is a reflection

of something that's true

about the human condition.

But there's a shift in what you said in that answer that that I want to pick out a little bit here because

what you wrote is that

conservatives in this case. But but as you say, also liberals deny objective truth. And you

say the objective truth is

that human beings need some conditions to flourish. That friendship is good, that loneliness is bad, poverty is


I don't know anybody conservative

or liberal who denies any

of that. Now

there's a lot of

disagreement difficulty disappointment in how

to combat some of these

and we can come back and and talk about what gets called deaths of despair, which I think is a very complicated set of


But one thing I see sometimes

in your writing

is a tendency to make a very strong claim about how everybody else on the other

side, the Liberal Order

has given up

on caring about people,


given up on


in fundamental institutions.

But my

experience of them is that they actually

believe in many of the same

things that you say you believe in.

But for a lot of reasons

that are, you know, I'm sure we will end

up talking about these

things are harder

to control or

build through

government than one

might expect. Now,

maybe you could say they

failed and they should be replaced

by people who have your

policies. But it's a really

different claim

to say

they don't believe in these

things from

you think that, say trade policy

was poorly constructed

and that the

promised gains didn't materialize.

Like I don't believe in friendship

and I was wrong about trade

policy are

very, very different views of the opposition.

So, I think one

area where maybe you would find that what seemed like strong claims on my part have some foundation

is that

all of these ways in which what I just described as sort of objectively measurable forms of reality that relate to the truth of the human being and ways in which our society is not well

founded and well

formed in such ways to support those necessary goods of

life. I would place and

conservatives would place the greatest stress the sort of most foundational stress on the health of the family, that in some

ways the health of all

of the rest of these aspects of life, whether it's relational, whether it's economic, whether it's developing

the kind of

virtues and goods of human life that those in some ways they are not


within the family form and the family


but in a sense, it's the necessary, if not sufficient condition. In almost all cases, it's the necessary condition. And here, I think I would primarily fall what I see as not just a kind of benign neglect or failed policies, but an actual hostility that is increasingly articulated and become a kind of central tenant in the progressive movement that regards family with

a growing and palpable

sense of suspicion that the family is a structure of inequality of hierarchy, that favors certain types of relationships, that is a structure of patriarchy


injustice. And look, I've

been teaching in universities

long enough to know that this is a widespread sentiment, especially in the intellectual classes, and it filters down in lots of ways through journalism and all the manifold ways that the intellectual class sort of gets the message out. Now, I don't think for that matter, that conservatives have done especially good job of articulating not just a supportive family values, but articulating the kinds of both political and social and economic policies that would be more supportive of family. But I do think that is one area where if there's going to be a successor to

the sort of

Reagan era conservatism, this is going to be and really is becoming a central area of focus among contemporary new conservatives.

I'd like you to substantiate that a little bit more than, than you did

there because I

see it as somebody

who is progressive



So on the one

hand, I don't really know that many people, I'm not actually sure I know

any who are abstract lee, suspicious or hostile

to the idea of the family. Everybody I know is

tangled up and complex

family loving, critical, difficult,


family relationships.

If I look at

Our last two presidents,

Barack Obama is a pretty

profound family man, donald trump who I think

more represents this form of populist conservatism too many

in it very

much is is not now, I don't think you're

wrong to say.

And I'm sure it's somewhat true

in academia

that there are critiques of the

family because

of course the family

is a sight

of some

amount of suffering

of difficulty of abuse

of sexual abuse of

people being

hurt in many

ways that they have to carry with

them through their lives.

And there are questions about what to do

with that,

but I

don't really think of

Progressivism too for that matter, conservatism

either, but I'll

defend Progressivism here is having

an abstract

anti family agenda. In

fact, in my experience

in the time I've been covering

politics, there's

just a constant,

endless stream

of discussions


what policies can we pass that will make it easier for families to go about

their business, child tax credits.

Um, if you look at build back


universal pre k if you look

at, um, you know, go back to the Obama administration, there was, you know, tons of these in

his budget, you know, how do you deal with the

transportation questions for

parents who need to work a job.

It can go on and on like

this. And again,

I'm open to the idea

that many policies failed or policies that should have been passed

warrant. I

think there have been destructive effects on


But I I think there's something

strange here. I

don't see the hostility, you

see. So I'd like to hear you substantiate

the hostility better, not the fact that

there are problems

in families, but the idea that you're really facing a movement that doesn't believe in families.

Yeah, hostility.

Again, I'll just invoke

the university world for a moment,

but one sees, for example,

efforts in the legal world increasingly to throw a kind of spotlight of suspicion on

the traditional

family form, we could

say so some of these

are, for

example, taking

on the idea that sort of parents should be seen as in some ways the


guides of their Children,

efforts that are under

being undertaken in some

legal theories

that are

attempting to

redefine the role

of and relationship with parents to Children as one of

a kind of, um,

in which parents are

kind of trustees

that are

understood to work on behalf

of the values of

the state or

the political

order and

that the relationship

of a parent, a child is

understood in the light

of a kind of deputizing of parents

in that role. So that what it does

is it creates a

situation in which if if it's deemed

for whatever

political reasons, that the parents

are not working on behalf of the values of the state,

that the Children are no

longer in some


sort of should be

understood as the wards of

the parents primarily.

In other words, the

stress is given to the,

to the role of

the relationship of the

political order

and the next generation.

Can you be specific

here, is there a law

that has been passed like this or is it? No, this is no, this is

developments basically in law

reviews where a lot of this

begins. So it's developments

in the legal world, theoretical

developments in the legal

world, as

is the case in many. This is

how, you know, this is how

arguments about gay marriage

really get their start. They

begin by appearing in

the law journals, they get, you

know, you put up a flag. You

see how it flies. I'm

not predicting necessarily these are going to become outright

law, but these are efforts

of construction

by law

professors at elite

universities and you're seeing it as well

and arguments about

homeschooling and beginning to move in the direction of the

german state and

its banning of

homeschooling. So

it's just a kind of

effort to construct, reconstruct

the understanding

of the family

as basically working for and on

behalf of the values

of the state

and the presumption being

a largely progressive state. Now you

may regard that that this is

crazy talk and

you know, where is the proof of this?

But this is

precisely the kind of

intellectual development that begins

at the level, very high levels, very theoretical levels,

very intellectual

levels, but sifts its way and works its way down


journalism and legal cases. And I think this is a major

sort of

next step or next development arising from the very transformations about family and sexuality that we began by talking

about. I don't

regard it as crazy

talk, but I do

Regard it as a bit of a two

step. And the way

I regarded that way is this that I read,

I read a lot of your work for this. I

spent a lot of time in Patrick Kennedy's

head in the past couple of weeks. Really

sorry about that.

It was a pleasure in

many ways and a little

unnerving and others, but

that's how it always is.


are describing, you are

mounting an assault on

politics as it

exists. You

do not write about.

Well, I think

There is this one marginal

legal theory movement that I think should be stopped depending

on how it actually is. It's

hard for me to know

from how you describe it. Maybe I'd even agree,

but I want to steal

man the position. You can

tell me if this is wrong,

I want to steal in the position.

I think you actually hold

because what I

think you're saying

in a lot of your work,

the way I read it



Progressivism liberalism has

actually done tangible things. Not in

law review articles, but in law

that that matter here, and I'll name


As you mentioned earlier, there was a

supreme Court decision

applying a


to same sex marriage, making it sacrosanct

under under our

law. I view that as a pro family

measure, but I think you don't.

And then there's of course, over the past, however many decades been the rise of

no fault divorce laws

which allow people to

dissolve family structures,

which I think, if I read you


you have some real concerns


But I'd like to use

those as an example here. I mean, is this what

you are talking about,

is this what you're saying is the

hostility to the objective need

for a strong family that we

have made it easier to get divorced and made it possible

for same sex

couples to have a

family and raise Children


Well, I would say those are two very visible examples of forms in which a


skepticism slash maybe hostility, but certainly a general effort to displace the norm of the family, for the sovereignty of the individual and the sovereignty of individual choice. So you go from

a relationship that's

regarded as sacrosanct, that's blessed not only by the state, but by

the institutions

that believe themselves to be carrying on


commands of divinity of God.

And you turn it

into a contract of consenting adults.


family is of course, it's the last

of the really

hard institutions for the liberal

order. The fundamental

premise of liberalism is

that we are free

and equal human beings that we are


sovereigns, creators of our own destiny.

But of course, every

human life begins without


It begins without me

choosing my parents and without parents

choosing their Children. It's

a kind of

existing contradiction to this ideal of the liberal

human being.

And so

in some ways, when I when

what you're discerning in my

riding is isn't just

I'm looking at this policy or that policy, what's the general

trend and

trajectory of all of these

things we've been talking

about all together.

And let's add into

this, what we could see as the burgeoning technologies,

technologies that

already exist, right, contraception, abortion, the ability to abort a child,

but also the

technologies of reproduction. Ones that perhaps promise or suggest the possibility of creating human life

outside of

the womb, outside altogether of the need of individual human beings to be even


about the creation of new

life, so that we

can begin to move to the point where we can select

the characteristics of the Children

that we might wish to have.

These are all

part of a general trajectory

that I think

is a reflection

of the belief that the

family is the last frontier

that has to

be overcome for us to become the vision of human beings that lies at the heart of the liberal anthropology of the belief of what human beings genuinely are

overcome is a word I wouldn't

use, but I do

understand why


would be relevant here. But this is a

place where I do want to

ask you to be specific. So I'm a child

of a divorced home. My

parents split

Up when I was 12.

I think something, you

know, as a child of a divorced home is that your parents splitting up is

not and their bonds to

you doesn't even end their bonds to each

other once chosen at

any level. For the most part

in one way or another, these relationships have to

maintain some

kind of

cable between

them forever,

but my parents

made each other unhappy not through anything


It made us unhappy

as Children in that household.

Should they have

not been allowed

to get divorced? Well, I think

we live in a world in which that argument conforms to exactly the liberal presuppositions that I was just saying

informed so much

of the background assumptions that we make in the world.

But this is a but this is

a policy question,

not just an argument, it

is, but in other words, when you frame

it, well, should

unhappy people stay in an unhappy


In terms of the assumptions that


that question? Well, who would who would want someone to be unhappy

if you

change the frame of that question in certain ways. So,

in the first instance, we

know at least social science tells us, and I'm not speaking about your person, I'm just talking about, you know, sort of the aggregate that Children

of divorced

households do

worse by

a whole range of


economically, as a result of all of the upheaval that that often puts Children through, especially young Children, but also psychological

mental issues that

arise in other words, that it

seems to be the case

if we are going to give some credence to these measures, that

divorce actually makes

Children and the Children that elicit from marriage, it makes Children unhappier and that


has understood that


relationships between

human beings and maybe marriage above all, is a relationship that is difficult. It's trying

and it needs

external supports.

And one way you support that externally is to

make the

default. That it's difficult

to exit that relationship. So that

you in some ways you're

required to work

on the relationship rather than exit the


that might sound like an idealist form or way of

putting it.

But it builds on

an older

insight by the economist

Albert Hirschman

from his book, Exit

loyalty and voice.


Hirschman proposed, he was looking

at this in economic

terms and what Hirschman

proposed was that there's

sort of two

responses to a

situation in which we

might be unhappy.


the option of exiting that situation.

But there's

another way in which we

can relate to the condition of

unhappiness, which is through voice, which is

through the effort to work through,

which is to call for

reform. And I think

really the question

we're faced with

is what is the

default when it comes to something like

marriage and hear

the sort of social

norms and even social

laws will play a big role. What is the

default when it comes to this

relationship? That's so key and critical in the raising

propagation and raising of the next

generation? And here's where I

would say I would like that

default to be one in which


loyalty and

voice, in which

the easier route of exit

is more difficult. I'm not saying

it has to be impossible, but it's more difficult and it's more

difficult for the sake of the Children that elicit from that marriage because

even Children who

are in a

marriage an

intact marriage

of a mother and a father who

might be unhappy

tend to do better in life. I'm

not saying it's true always and everywhere,

but I'm talking about defaults here. Well, the social science on that I do want to

know is very

sensitive to what you control for. In terms of the divorce, we don't tend to do random