Vol. 33 No. 07 (November 2023) pp. 98-103

REGIME CHANGE: TOWARDS A POST-LIBERAL FUTURE, Patrick Deneen. New York: Sentinel. 2023. pp. 269. $30.00, ISBN 978-0-593-08690-2.

Reviewed by Mark Rush. Department of Politics, Washington and Lee University. Email:

In Regime Change, Patrick Deneen offers a vision of a postliberal future that would, essentially, turn back the clocks of the last few hundred years of liberal democracy. And, he does all this in a scant 260 pages. Needless to say, this is an ambitious work and project. As well, Regime Change really can’t be discussed without touching upon Deneen’s prior work, Why Liberalism Failed which provides the foundation for his discussion of a postliberal future. In this regard, much of Regime Change has already been discussed in reviews of and reactions to the diagnosis of liberalism that Deneen offers in the former work. It departs from—or, at least, gets out of the glare of--the prior commentary when Deneen essentially picks up the gauntlet he threw at himself and looks to describe a postliberal future and prescribe how to get there.

The importance of this work is manifested in the nature of its critics. President Obama tipped his hat to Why Liberalism Failed by saying:
In a time of growing inequality, accelerating change, and increasing disillusionment with the liberal democratic order we’ve known for the past few centuries, I found this book thought-provoking. I don’t agree with most of the author’s conclusions, but the book offers cogent insights into the loss of meaning and community that many in the West feel, issues that liberal democracies ignore at their own peril. (
Other reactions to Regime Change have been equally powerful, eloquent, and voluminous because, in many cases, they emanate from denizens of the privileged classes that he criticizes (e.g., Szalai, 2023). Those with the educational opportunities, wealth, or simply the capacity to absorb the opportunity cost to challenge Deneen have done so. Those on whose behalf he advocates—the working classes, the “deplorables” described by Hillary Clinton, or, simply those but for the grace of gods or fate would have had access to the opportunities that elites have had—simply don’t have the time, skill set, or access to platforms that would enable them to celebrate with the same volume, eloquence, and tenor. These are the folks that Salena Zito covers in her journalism (Zito and Todd, 2018).

Whether liberal democracies are, as Obama suggests, “ignoring” Deneen’s analysis or simply blind to it is less important than the fact that his description of politics in the USA and, perhaps, the global north is accurate. In the name of “progress”, liberalism “has generated a particularly virulent form of that ancient divide that pits ‘the few’ against ‘the many’” (x). In response, the masses have arisen in electoral revolts described by elites as “populist”. This is not news.

Scholars across the disciplines note that the seeds of contemporary revolts were sewn not by demagogues, but by the same elites Deneen criticizes. Scholars such as Thomas Piketty (2017) and Branco Milanovic (2016) demonstrate that private capital accumulation and globalization have had disproportionately positive impacts on the global well-to-do and equally negative impacts on global have-nots. While the world may have become more equal, inequality within nations has become worse and resulted in those populist revolts. Deneen suggests that this is the inevitable result of liberalism’s failure because, long ago, its advocates sold the masses a bill of goods: “Liberalism proposed to overthrow [the] ancient regime and put in its place an order in which people, through their striving, ability, and hard work could create an identity and future based upon the sum of their own choices” (p. 3). Instead, liberalism created a faux free marketplace of merit that inevitably favored the privileged who had the time, resources, or wealth to engage in it effectively and efficiently. In this regard, liberalism replaced the restraints imposed by birthright with ones imposed by the benefits that accrue from winning in the meritocratic marketplace. As a result, the “guardrails” of the old regime—schools, universities, associations, churches, family—have either been destroyed or coopted to undermine the opportunity for advancement that liberal meritocracy promised (p. 5).

In this respect, Deneen is particularly harsh on American higher ed. As noted in numerous responses to the Students for Fair Admissions decision, American higher ed is no longer an elevator for all classes (Rauch 2023). Instead, especially in elite schools, it has become a mechanism for reinforcing class differences. To a certain point, Deneen is observing simply the latest manifestation of Marx’s class tensions or, perhaps, the forces that explain “Why the Haves Come Out Ahead” (Galanter 1974). But, what Deneen observes seems worse than the systematic bias Galanter described. While commoners might not have the resources to beat a Rockefeller or Soros in court, once upon a time, their greater numbers gave them power at the ballot box. In The Last Hurrah, Mayor Skeffington had no problems bringing bankers and financiers to their knees with the threat of utilities work in front of the bank entrance (O’Connor). In the 21st century, however, the fantastic growth in private power enables elites to compete with and even insulate themselves from the power of government (Wittes and Blum, pp. 93-122). Whereas Teddy Roosevelt could go after trusts and monopolies, Elon Musk now holds the power to direct the outcome of the war in Ukraine (Ip 2023). Thus, Deneen observes:
Liberalism justifies the emergence of an elite whose primary self-assigned role was to prevent the masses from forestalling progress, either as revolutionaries who would be tempted to interfere in a capitalist economy, or as progressives who sought the overturning of traditional culture (p. 133).
To remedy this elite insulation, Deneen proposes the reorganization of society along the lines of a “mixed constitution” such as that described by Aristotle, Polybius, and Machiavelli (p. 126). Instead of pretending to promote an Aristotelian “artful mixture of oligarchy and democracy,” (p. 127) to form a “middling” society, Deneen draws upon a more modern vision of a mixed constitution that would essentially balance the interests of social classes. While he suggests that such thinking is akin to the ancients, I think it is important to point out that it is echoed in modern calls for consociational democracy (Lijphart), or more recent assertions of identity politics that call for the promotion and maintenance of distinct group interests.

In this regard, Deneen echoes, for example, Derrick Bell’s suggestion that a separate and truly equal system of public education might have better served minority students than the desegregation process that ensued in the wake of Brown v. Board (Balkin and Ackerman, p. 186). Desegregation allowed the well-to-do to flee to suburban or private schools; this consigned minority and poor urban students to public school systems that were under-funded and under-resourced. Once again, the elites escaped the costs of the mechanisms they imposed on the masses.

Deneen’s vision would make sense if population and demographics were static, no one is born or dies, and people willingly remain in the caste or class they were assigned at birth. Under such circumstances—which would include, I think, a finite or unchanging supply of wealth and resources-- a mixed regime might promote the inter-class negotiation and bargaining that Deneen envisions. In reality, however, wealth can be created and lost. People do aspire to improve their lot even if they wish to retain or conserve their traditions. Traditional groups—think of a 20th-century “Chinatown” or “Little Italy”—rise and fall. A changing population is inherently dynamic.

To remedy this, Deneen argues that “[t]oday’s elites must be forced to abandon their self-serving efforts in the face of overwhelming evidence that the social, economic, and political discourse they have pursued for the past fifty years has deeply harmed the prospects for flourishing among the working classes” (xv). Needless to say, the most important, operative word in that last quote is “forced”. Who is going to do this forcing? With what justification and rationale? Will the elites abide? To remedy this situation, Deneen dedicates the book to explaining how this could occur.

Deneen looks to “re-integrate” divided societies under the moniker of “common good conservatism” (“CGC”), he aspires to reforge the bonds that once connected elites and the masses. His definition of CGC is a bit nebulous. But, he argues that it “combines the left’s commitments to a more egalitarian and communal economic order with the right’s support for social values that undergird strong and stable familial, communal, associational, and religious order” (p. 96). Needless to say, his vision of the common good is as contested a concept as similar visions offered by any other social critic. While the details may be contestable, the notion that societies ought to work to bridge and shrink social divides is not. The question remains: how to achieve this?

One, simple answer is to call for some sort of Leviathan. This would not be Thomas Hobbes’ creature, however. This Leviathan would need to be able to control and reallocate private wealth and, while doing so, police the farthest reaches of pesky cyberspace. Finding a way to ensure that such a power could control itself as well as the governed would be no small chore. Failing that, Deneen makes several suggestions for reforms to political institutions and procedures that would entail, essentially, baby steps in the direction of controlling that private, elite power. These include:
● Force all groups to serve in the military—no exceptions for the well-to-do.
● Promote vocational higher education
● Increase the size of the House of Representatives
● Break up cities and urban areas
● Punish those who employ illegal immigrants.
● Favor caucuses over primaries to enable the masses to counter the impact of the elite.
● Promote government as a counterweight to private power (p. 181).
● Pass laws to shore up marriage and the traditional family
● Acknowledge and promote the Christian roots of American civilization (p. 182).
One could quibble with any of these suggestions. I focus on just a couple to note that they would not necessarily aid Deneen’s program. For example, critics, who complain about Republican minority rule and overrepresentation in Congress and the Electoral College (Klein 2018), contend that enlarging the House and maybe getting rid of the Senate would ensure appropriate levels of liberal/Democratic control. One has to figure that breaking up cities and urban areas would have the same salutary impact on the power of the littoral elites that Deneen looks to constrain. It’s hard to say whether promoting caucuses over primaries would help or hurt the interests of the commoners. But, if one gives any credence to the UCLA model of political parties (Bawn, et al. 2012), altering the nomination process won’t make much of a difference if parties are the playthings of private interests and private spending in elections continue to outstrip public (Bipartisan Policy Center, 2019).

Make no mistake: Deneen’s suggestions are thoughtful and important. Again, the question looms: What force can be marshalled (and by whom) to bring such changes about? Somewhere, something akin to a proletarian vanguard, Hobbesian Super-Leviathan, or a simple centralization of governmental power must arise or occur. What crisis would precipitate the aggregation of such power as well as the public support necessary to legitimize it? 9/11 did not do it. COVID did—but only for a short time (Malm).

Climate change could generate the outcry and shared sense of urgency necessary to support the centralization of government power Deneen’s vision requires. As Ross Mittiga (2021) demonstrates, the instruments of liberal democracy are failing to generate the actions necessary to preserve the common good with regard to maintaining the environment. He suggests that a centralization of executive power, a rearticulation and corresponding shrinking of the scope of liberties, and a means of getting around the inefficiencies of deliberative democracy might be necessary to take adequate actions to control climate change in the name of a truly global common interest of planetary survival. But, the same question looms: does climate change present enough of a crisis to entice elites to shed their privilege in the name of common survival? Will all people acknowledge the need for and legitimacy of the centralized, leviathan-like power necessary to achieve the common good?

In closing, I offer one quibble: based on Deneen’s analysis, it seems that the premise of Regime Change is misstated. Liberalism did not fail; it has succeeded. Private power has grown exponentially to such a point that the public power of government may seem inadequate for preserving the common good. While the notion of a common good may be off-putting to Deneen’s critics, it must be noted that Congress is charged with providing for the “general welfare” in Article I, section 8 of the U.S. Constitution.

One can debate Deneen’s diagnoses and analyses of the sources of contemporary political dysfunction and elite hypocrisy and his remedies. But, there is no debate on the existence of class tension, political polarization, and worsening inequality across the world and in liberal democracies in particular. To promote—and attain—any change of the revolutionary scope described by Deneen will require a crisis or the existence of an actor powerful enough to control elites and constrain liberties. In the end, then, while Regime Change remains an important, visionary, courageous work that will continue to generate important debate about the state of politics, it leaves the reader hanging. After all the debating is done, the question remains, how to achieve the revolutionary changes necessary to repair or improve liberalism so that a postliberal society will be better?


Balkin, J. and Bruce Ackerman. 2001. What Brown v. Board Should Have Said. New York: New York University Press.

Bawn, K. et al. 2012. “A Theory of Political Parties: Groups, Policy Demands and Nominations in American Politics.” Perspectives on Politics. 16 August. Last accessed 29 September 2023.

Bipartisan Policy Center. 2019. Campaign Finance in the United States. Last accessed 29 September 2023.

Galanter, Marc. 1974. “Why the Haves Come Out Ahead: Speculations on the Limits of Legal Change.” Law and Society Review 9: 95-160.

Ip, Greg. 2023. “How Elon Musk Came to Influence the Fate of Nations.” Wall Street Journal 27 September. Last accessed 29 September 2023.

Klein, Ezra. 2018. “The Rigging of American Politics.” 16 October. Last accessed 29 September 2023.

Lijphart, A. 1969. “Consociational Democracy.” World Politics 21: 207-25.

Malm, A. 2020. Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the 21st Century. London: Verso Press.

Milanovic, B. 2016. “Why the Global 1% and the Asian Middle Class Have Gained the Most from Globalization.” Harvard Business Review. 13 May.

Mittiga, R. 2021. “Political Legitimacy, Authoritarianism, and Climate Change.” American Political Science Review: 1-14.

O’Connor, Edwin. 1956. The Last Hurrah. Boston: Little, Brown.

Piketty, T. 2017. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge: Harvard Belknap Press.

Rauch, J. 2023. “Let’s Smash the College Admissions Process.” New York Times 1 June. Last accessed 29 September 2023.

Szalai, Jennifer. 2023. “When ‘Regime Change’ Means Returning America to an Idealized Past.” New York Times. 7 June. Last accessed 27 September 2023.

Wittes, B. and Gabriella Blum. 2016. The Future of Violence. United Kingdom: Amberly. Zito, Salena and Brad Todd. 2018. The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics. Forum Books.

© Copyright 2023 by author, Mark Rush.