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Creating a New Elite
Patrick Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed attracted a lot of attention for its criticism of liberalism as an ideology. He has a new book called Regime Change that I have not yet read, but which is reputedly his attempt at defining what a replacement for liberalism would look like.
Ross Douthat has read the book and his latest column is an interesting look at one of the questions it raises, namely how to replace an elite.
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 postliberalism 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 subtraditions. Even the gestures that critics have highlighted as cryptotheocratic, 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.
Douthat distills the post-liberal answer to that question into two basic halves: failure of political economy (a libertarian vision, basically), and, relatedly, failure to recognize and leverage other sources of power (culture, therapeutic politics, aesthetics).
I think that the answers provided by today’s new right tend to be naïve, rooted in shallow assumptions about how ignorant and unmotivated previous generations were. For example, I hear people complain about how conservatives never conserved anything, and that we need a more revolutionary political posture. But as I noted in my podcast on culture warring, these tend to sound eerily similar to conservatism’s leadership past. For example, the seminal original 70s-80s New Right figure Richard Viguerie said, in 1982, “We are no longer working to preserve the status quo. We are radicals working to overthrow the power structure of this country.” Another example is the common online complaint that “conservatives don’t create culture.” But as sociologist James Davison Hunter pointed out in his book To Change the World, conservative Christians actually produced huge quantities of cultural product. It just had no impact.
Having said that, I do think there’s truth in the idea that conservatives have not properly understood how power functions in America. Hence their theories of change have been incorrect. (Even if they had been correct, it’s not at all clear if they would have been able to succeed in their undertaking given the extremely weak position hand of cards they held).
But assuming the post-liberal critique of both today’s incumbent liberalism and the conservative project are correct, what’s their actual plan? Douthat continues:
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?
This is a critical question, one too seldom studied today. I haven’t seen a lot of great contemporary thinking on elites, power structures, social class, etc. (Post suggestions in the comments if you have them). This is what must be understood and distilled in order to propose a theory of change and roadmap for getting there.
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That’s one reason I’ve been so fascinated with the work of sociologist E. Digby Baltzell, because he is one of the few people who did original, detailed, compelling work on the topic.
It’s very obvious that changes in economic structures are a key driver of changes in elites, something conservatives don’t want to face because of its Marxist associations. For example, the WASP elites as understood in the midcentury era emerged in the post-Civil War period in large part because of the emergence of large scale industrialization of a type that had heretofore been unknown. This led to the first wave of economic nationalization, which produced a nationalized elite. (The economic side of this process is detailed in Alfred D. Chandler Jr.’s The Visible Hand).
Or perhaps it’s less a matter of not wanting to study the topic than it is averting one’s eyes from the abyss. The one conservative thinker of the last 50 years who put forth an elite theory and analysis combined with a program for change was Samuel Francis, who did this systematically in his book Leviathan and Its Enemies (written in the early 90s but not published until 2016). The Guardian called it, “one of the most impressive books to come out of the American right in a generation.”
Unfortunately, Francis’ answer was, in essence, fascism, or what he referred to as the “hard managerial regime.”
This shows the dangers of atheist-materialist thinking. Francis undoubtedly fell into this category when he did his most influential writing. There seems to be something about deep critiques of modern left ideologies, of which liberalism is an example, that in the absence of true belief in God leads to fascistic type conclusions. This type of thinking dominates dissident right type discourse.
Being devout Catholics, this won’t happen to Deneen or Douthat, but leaves open the question of what the alternative plan is. Perhaps one fruitful area to study might be the post-Constantinian Christianization of Rome. One aspect of that transformation was the emergence of alternative elite pathways in the church, both through holding episcopal office, but also through ascetic vocations. The Christian scions of the Roman pagan elite turned aside from the traditional Roman status system in favor of the church. Over time, this produced a parallel elite that would wield power. I’m not saying this is the answer, but it’s something worth looking at.
The other thing to consider is that our weapons are not of this world. The problem with thinkers like Francis is, being atheists, there’s no room for God to show up. Or, to put it in a more secular language, he’s ignorant of black swans. He also lives in what Charles Taylor called the “immanent frame,” in which there are no eschatological goods; this world is all there is. Unsurprisingly this leads to radical politics. The Christian must be comfortable not knowing everything and not having the complete roadmap of how to bring into being, a sentiment repeated over and over again in the Bible. There’s nothing wrong with making plans and aiming to change the world for the better. But this has to be done in light of transcendent reality and awareness of our own smallness in the greater scheme of things. Many are the plans of a man, but the purpose of the Lord will stand. We have to be able to move forward in confidence without having all the answers.