Liberalism has become a victim of its own success, says American political scientist Patrick Deneen, who said in an interview that Hungary was regarded as a positive example by US conservative intellectuals, primarily because of the government’s family policy measures. The professor at the University of Notre Dame came to Hungary to attend the presentation of the Hungarian edition of his book, “Why Liberalism Failed.”
The basic idea of your book is that liberalism is in crisis because it has actually triumphed. How should this be understood?
Many people identify liberalism with the modern definition of freedom as the absence of external barriers. And really, if you ask the average person, he will say that freedom is: I do what I want. Liberalism, on this basis, therefore calls for a reorganization of society in which there is nothing to stop individuals’ freedom of action. However, the success of such a society can only be based on non-liberal institutions. Those that shape human character, but necessarily limit the ability to define oneself, such an institution is the family, which by its very nature is not a liberal unit because we cannot choose our identity within the family. The establishment of a liberal society thus requires weakening of institutions like the family. That’s why families, churches and small communities of people in the West have been weakened. Ironically, however, the more liberated we are, the more we rely on a central government that can replace these communities.
According to a follower of socialism, it is not a bad ideology; only historical attempts have failed so far. What would you say if there were a similar argument about liberalism?
Defenders of liberalism most often refer to classical liberal values, saying that they represent true liberalism. According to them, socialism and over-driven progressive thinking have diverted liberalism from its true roots. In my book, by contrast, I argue that the germ of this negative turnaround was already present in classical liberalism.
Do you agree that while Anglo-Saxon liberalism used to be the same as the European on ideological issues but with different economic approaches, the two schools of thought are now converging?
They are increasingly turning to European conservative thinking in America. Previously, it would have been inconceivable for a political leader in our country to call himself a conservative and advocate the protection of various industries in addition to raising tariffs. However, people had the experience that the imperial, interventionist foreign policy of the eighties and the unrestricted support of the free market did not benefit them. This is what Donald Trump has recognized, and there is increasing debate among American conservatives today about how to develop a non-globalist, national-conservative direction. For this, they look for European examples and talk about what a modern nation-state should look like. Hungary is considered as a model on this issue.
Now, you’re just being polite.
Not at all. Certainly the average person does not talk about this, but conservative intellectuals do. If we look at examples of post-liberal political systems in the world that do not proclaim the exclusivity of the free market and that recognize national politics, national cultural values and the importance of preserving life, Hungary comes up in every conversation.
There is little evidence of this in the American press.
I’m talking about a fairly narrow but influential group of conservative intellectuals. Many articles about Hungarian family policy are circulating in these circles, speculating as to whether it could be part of a future conservative American leadership program. In these circles, Hungary is often and positively discussed, but of course not in the mainstream media. There, they write extremely negatively about your homeland.
You met Viktor Orbán. The Prime Minister often invites foreign intellectuals. Do you know why he is doing this?
The Prime Minister said he has long been striving to spend one day a week reading alongside his political duties. He seemed to be a man interested in spiritual matters. He may also want to shape the views of international thinkers with these meetings, but he seemed to be really interested in theoretical issues. This is a rare trait in a politician. Compared to ordinary politicians, it is a characteristic of a real statesman. I don’t know if he is; this will probably only be judged in the future.
What topics were covered?
We talked about the Hungarian family policy, which I do not know in detail, but the basic directions that were discussed seemed to be very positive. Our conversation was intellectually high-quality and varied in subjects. I haven’t experienced this kind of thing with leading politicians.
Did you disagree in anything?
We treat Donald Trump a little differently. Viktor Orbán has a good relationship with him, but all I could say about myself is that I am closer to Trump than his fierce opponents, but I am by no means committed to our president.
You mentioned family policy. In your country, upper-middle-class families are stable, but lower-income marriages are in crisis, with many broken families. What is the reason for this?
Institutions like marriage have become a luxury product. Maintaining a relationship with economic implications is becoming increasingly difficult. Our world used to support institutions like marriage, but this is no longer the case today. Only those who have the appropriate financial resources can balance this situation. That is why the liberal view of the individual alone is more damaging to the lower class because they cannot afford the social safety net. Our society is completely divided. In the past, broader kinship helped parents raise their children. Now it is done by employees, but not everyone can afford to have a maid or babysitter. In the United States, the elite today pursue a traditional lifestyle, but use arguments that defy traditional values. They proclaim that everyone should do what they want and support the sexual revolution, but they do not live that way. They can afford to deal with the dangers of excessive freedom, but the lower classes are not prepared for it.
In America, the increasingly radical socialists get along well with the progressive. What is the reason why the two ideologies fit together so well?
Under the younger President Bush, the liberals started to turn to the left, which I think was the reason for the President’s rapprochement with religious conservatives, which the liberals did not agree with. Around this time, issues such as gay marriage came to the forefront. In the past, however, the fight against communism and economic liberalism, the free market, had been the defining theme. After social issues came to the forefront, liberals felt they could work more with the left. Today, however, classical liberals find it difficult to accept that the progressive parties are calling for strong state interference in socio-economic issues. Old-fashioned liberals would never vote for Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders.
Your country has become increasingly liberal in recent decades. What is the reason for this, how did this come about?
If you don’t throw the frog directly into the hot water but gradually increase the temperature in the pot, it does not even realize that it is boiling. This was also the case with liberalism, and it was only in the last ten years that its conquest was greatly accelerated. The liberal movement, which was originally intended to liberate the people, is becoming more and more authoritarian. Today, the situation has changed due to the fact that liberalism has failed to produce results in a subtle manner on the issues of family, religion and patriotism, all of which can be a barrier to completely free self-determination. They attacked these identity-building institutions because they felt they were limiting people’s ability to define themselves. This is how liberalism has become increasingly violent.
Many previous liberal topics have been overshadowed in recent years and replaced by new, controversial issues. It is as if this is not based on principle, but on party affiliation. How do you see this?
Presumably, politics has always been influenced by tribal thinking. We’ve all seen a politician say the exact opposite of what he said ten years ago to prove his party’s truth. What is so special about today’s liberals is that they believe that they have transcended tribal thinking. Today, however, the liberal elite is forming a new aristocracy. They argue against tribal thinking, but in order to maintain their prominent position in society. When the current leader feels in danger, the liberal elite accuse the majority of society of tribal behavior.
In your book, you draw attention to the paradox that, on certain issues, liberals seem to have become fatalists. Are they right?
Indeed, when it comes to certain phenomena, such as global integration or economic concentration or technological change, we hear that this is inevitable and we have no choice; we have to live with these phenomena. This is particularly ironic in an age that liberals see as the freest ever. Changes in international politics, such as the election of Trump or Brexit, point to the fact that they are not necessarily immutable. I like to emphasize the importance of building and nurturing smaller communities, because smaller groups are changing the way we think about the world. For example, anyone who thinks of family puts the family’s interests in the foreground. Just think about insurance! If we see it as a way to eliminate interdependence, then I say that I pay the installments so that I only need a very small percentage from others when I need help. On the other hand, if we have a positive attitude towards our community, we believe it is our duty to help each other significantly when they get in trouble, and we also have easier access to the help of those we are attached to.
The original interview appeared on the Hungarian-language website, Magyar Nemzet.