Regime change is in the air. Few people today think of politics in terms of the mundane electoral issues of yesteryear. Every election now decides not the questions of “normal politics”—marginal tax rates and acceptable levels of deficit spending—but rather what is, and will be, the nature of our regime. The following question is now on every ballot: Will liberalism remain the dominant ideology of America and the West, or will a post-liberal successor regime take its place?
We are often tempted to think of this question in terms of “populism” versus “elitism.” Around the world, the rise of right-populist parties poses a threat not only to left progressive priorities, but to the center-right liberal commitments as well. These two heretofore mainstream political groupings have increasingly banded together to form a working coalition in order to oppose the populist threat. For the center right, populism threatens economic neoliberalism. For the progressive party, populism threatens the liberationist social agenda. In both cases, the libertarian—that is, the most purely liberal—commitments of each trump any long-standing opposition between each other. They understand that they are faced with a challenge to the fundamental legitimacy of liberalism itself.
Even those relatively inattentive to political matters now perceive the rise of a distinctive ruling class that today dominates the institutions of the West. Members of this ruling class are selected for their support and defense of the liberal order. Their main qualifying commitment is to the dismantling of a bounded world. In the economic domain, the liberal ruling class (right and left, Bushes and Clintons, Reagan and Obama) have dismantled national and politically constrained markets in favor of global markets, undoing formerly cherished protections for domestic workers in favor of the emancipation of globalized capital that seeks to extract and maximize “value” in every niche of the world. In order to compete in a ruthless marketplace, hard-won worker benefits—often achieved through the sacrifice of generations of labor unionists—have been undone. The priority of maximizing shareholder value and the advantages of the financial class have trumped considerations of basic decent conditions for the working class. In return for wage precarity, benefit reduction, the elimination of leisure, and general economic insecurity, the ordinary man and woman are promised a nirvana of consumer choice. The ethos of the insatiable consumptive has replaced the ideal of the proud producer.
The ruling class also governs over the unbinding of the social domain. In the name of a condition of equal independence, the basic norm of marriage between a man and a woman—the only union that can produce children and, thus, the future of humanity—has been “de-centered.” Fewer people than ever throughout the West marry or reproduce, imbibing the consumerist ethos of remaining commitment-free. Every June, we enter a month of celebration of forms of sexual union that are biologically barren—yet must be celebrated precisely because they are transgressive and unbounded.
We have traversed a world in which abortion was once understood to be, at best, a tragic and baleful choice—Bill Clinton argued that even if it should be “safe and legal,” it should nevertheless also be rare—to one that celebrates infanticide. While we are told that “Love Wins,” marriage has lost, and children are increasingly absent through chemical intervention or surgical elimination. The next step of “unbinding” now unfolds with denial of the basic biological reality of the human creature, commanding us all to adopt various pronouns to demonstrate our acquiescence to the orthodoxy that our “gender” is merely yet another choice, one now guaranteed by optional surgical self-mutilation, even of children.
If one challenges this unbounded world, one is instantly charged with the worst forms of “crime-think”—a despicable yearning to shunt women, gays, transexuals into kitchens or closets, to “go back” at least to the 1950s, if not the Middle Ages. Economic neoliberals similarly denounce efforts to restrain the unbounded marketplace as the return of communism, with gulags just around the bend. The cry of “authoritarianism” suffices to achieve what Richard Rorty once called a “conversation-stopper,” in which the effort to draw any line restricting the unbounded freedom advanced by the liberal ruling class constitutes, alternatively, fascism, communism, or theocracy.
Meanwhile, members of the ruling class live by values not unlike those of the 1950s. As Charles Murray empirically demonstrated in his important 2011 study, Coming Apart, members of the ruling class trumpet the emancipatory philosophy of liberalism even as they themselves live as conservatives. They marry and tend to stay married, and have at least one or two children who benefit from massive investment of familial time and funds. They divorce less, raise their children to adhere to codes of hard work and self-discipline, and seek to avoid various addictions, such as alcohol, drugs, social media, and pornography. With the benefits of educations that allow them to navigate the unbounded economic market, many often not only successfully negotiate those challenges, but even flourish. They congregate in some of the nicest towns and cities in the nation, from dynamic cities to charming downtowns on the coasts.
Murray condemned this class for practicing what it does not preach. While this charge is certainly true, the all-too-common accusation of hypocrisy is the redoubt of those who disapprove of current conditions but who nevertheless wish to leave the basic structures of unboundedness in place. As a libertarian, Murray believes that most people can be simply encouraged to make the good private choices to lead good private lives. This stance studiously avoids considering the necessary structures of boundedness that give preference and encouragement to good collective choices that appear to be personal—ones that are never merely private. What claims about encouraging the flourishing of “civil society” and “associations” leave out—as admirable and necessary as those conditions are—are the ways that the consequences of unboundedness make it nearly impossible structurally for those outside the ruling class to fulfill what most recognize as flourishing human lives. One of the main features, and even designs, of liberalism is to disassemble what might be described as public social utilities, and in their place, to privatize all such social and political “utilities” for the benefit of the ruling class. In almost every instance, what used to be a widespread, easily accessible “public social utility” is now enjoyed primarily by elites, many of whom then bemoan or frown upon the bad choices made by the masses.
Most obviously, economic safety nets are privatized: Wage and job protections and benefits are dismantled in the name of efficiency. Policies designed to guard relatively powerless workers are demolished under the pressure of a politically engineered globalized market. Guaranteed pensions are replaced by what are now personally managed investment funds. For those with the education and leisure to learn how to manage a personal portfolio, you can do at least as well, if not better, than those who managed the pensions of old. For the rest—good luck.
A living wage, health care, worker protections, pensions, job security—all are disassembled in the name of an unbounded marketplace where the so-called meritocrats can rise to the top.
At the same time, we might also consider another form of “public social utility” to be the solidity of marriage, family, and the community that environs and protects these foundational relations. In the face of economic precarity, commitment to marriage and children is now a dicey gamble. Yet both right and left liberals are prone to dismiss proposals to provide public financial support for family formation. Right liberals believe that marriage should be a free choice, but not a destination for the public dole; left liberals throw suspicion on the oppressive “norms” that underlie support for “traditional marriage.” Once-common guardrails that protected decency and discouraged vice, such as laws against obscenity, blasphemy, pornography, drugs, and other vices, have been dismantled in the name of individual freedom. One can choose not to be an opioid addict, but if you choose badly, it’s your own fault.
We have even effectively privatized the public benefits of living in decent places. Nice villages, towns, and cities where all classes might mingle were once the norm. Now, if you can afford to live in West Hartford, Conn., near where I grew up, the restaurant scene is better than ever. Those who can’t—to invoke the advice of National Review writer Kevin Williamson—should rent a U-Haul and leave their dying hometowns, places like Steubenville, Ohio. Elites congregate in environments lionized by classical architects—walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods built to human scale. The rest of the society gets either blighted cities or exurbs of endless concrete parking lots.
The division of our politics arises from the effort to protect these conditions—if you are a liberal—or to overturn them, if you are a “populist.” In the eyes of those they dominate, the ruling class is today increasingly regarded as an illegitimate elite that has organized a world increasingly contrary to the needs of those it governs. The institutionalization of the libertarian ethos—in both the economic and social domains—has globally ravaged the working classes, leaving them simultaneously in a condition of economic precarity and social disintegration.
Elites have lighted upon a unique strategy that blunts the threat emanating from below: In the name of advancing equality, the ruling class engages in unstinting moral denunciation of the demos, particularly accusations of racism, homophobia, bigotry, and embittered resentment. Elites cover themselves in faux veils of egalitarianism, replacing the left’s historic commitment to class politics with identity politics. The dominant political agenda of the ruling class is remarkably well-calibrated to leave structural liberalism wholly intact while the cocktail set loudly congratulates itself over the egalitarian commitments of institutions such as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale.
And yet, the criticisms of “woke” from right liberals are also designed to keep intact the economic advantages of the GOP donor class. Rather than understanding “wokeness” as a form of class and status self-protection, right liberals depict it as “cultural Marxism,” rather than a program born from the heart of capitalism’s core values of consumerist liberation and bearing more in common with the ethos of Milton Friedman than Karl Marx. Right liberalism shrewdly attempts to detach social “unboundedness” from economic “unboundedness,” obfuscating the manner in which the two have advanced seamlessly together.
In response, the bottom-up populist uprising has been driven largely by an anti-elitist ethos, calling not only for the elimination of the current leadership class, but taking apart the institutions that they control. Its project has been largely negative, inspired by a bottom-up insurgency whose main message is “Enough!” Appeals to anti-wokeism, anti-CRT, and anti-Covid lockdowns have given powerful energy to the “rabble-rousers,” electorally benefiting right-liberal Republican candidates like Glenn Youngkin who, like their Democratic opponents, are largely focused on defending one essential component of the liberal imperium.
Stoking populist anger isn’t enough. What is needed is a genuine regime change, not merely the tearing down of the current liberal overclass, but the fashioning of a new ruling class—yes, an elite, even—that governs in close alignment with the popular party. This will mean abandoning the primary economic and social commitments that have governed the liberal parties for the better part of the past century. This will mean a change of regime—not merely the government, but a fundamentally different way of life grounded in a fundamentally different set of commitments than those advanced by a bankrupted liberal ruling class.
Economic and social instability and churning transformation today benefit a small sliver of our political order while generating conditions that degrade the prospects for flourishing among the ordinary citizens of the nation. Both liberal parties today, right liberals and left liberals, blare their commitment to liberty, but the demand emanating from below is for order. Instead of a “Uniparty of Progress”—in which we are asked to support one or the other side of either economic or social libertarianism—ordinary Americans cry out for a “Party of Order.” Rather than a liberal elite that benefits from globalized disorder, a new alignment should be sought in which, ideally, both parties seek to protect stability, balance, and order that provide the conditions for flourishing of all parts of society, not merely those who benefit from the fruits of “progress.”
Here, the lessons of political philosophy can offer us a new way of thinking. For several generations, the dominant philosophical debate in the United States has been between the proponents of the legacies of the two Johns: John Locke (darling of right liberals, until recently mislabeled as “conservatives”) and John Dewey (hero of the progressives). Or, to take two other “Johns,” John Stuart Mill’s libertarian individualism is challenged by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s hope for a remaking of the world to recreate our natural sociability by political artifice. All of these modern thinkers, and many more we might name, were defenders of disruptive doctrines of revolution, ones which at their core conceived of the political order as the engine of constant churning change and “progress.” Because the resulting liberal parties arising from the vision of each have been “progressive” parties, the word “progress” has historically had a positive political valence. The revival of an alternative tradition—drawn from classical and Christian sources—would begin the overdue project of rendering that word, and the concept, deeply suspect. In its place, a positive vision of a more stable—even conservative—post-progressive, post-liberal order might emerge.
An older philosophical tradition commends itself to a new age: the idea of the mixed regime or mixed constitution. Classical and medieval thinkers such as Aristotle, Polybius, and Aquinas provide a roadmap for modern regime change. The answer lies not in the replacement of one liberal party with another—which, in effect, constitutes one fundamentally continuous liberal ruling class—but the overthrow of both.
Recognizing that every society is divided between two classes, the classical thinkers asked: How can the two be reconciled? What will prevent the likely descent of these parties into either civil war or tyranny? Classical thinkers lauded the potential for virtuous monarchs and aristocrats and thus, in theory, favored rule by a certain well-formed elite. Yet they also recognized that such individuals were rarely to be found. Most regimes, in fact, were likely to be governed either by corrupt elites—oligarchs—or a debased populace, in the form of mob democracy. Each party had a tendency toward distinctive and even opposite vices. The vices of elites were monopoly on wealth and opportunity; condescension and neglect; and a preference to inhabit citadels built to separate themselves from the demos. The demos, at its worst, was prone to coarseness, degraded taste, the deprivations of poverty, resentment, and the attendant temptation to support demagogues. If one of these parties predominated, its inherent vices would come to the fore. The worst elements of both parties would emerge unchecked, and the result was likely an oscillation of vicious rule by the two parties that would ultimately lead to political ruin.
The consistent answer offered in the classical tradition was to mix the two parties, not merely to restrain the worst vices of each, but to allow for the emergence of their respective potential virtues. The party of the few, while potentially tyrannical, also enjoyed advantages that could be shared for the benefit of the many: leisure, refinement, liberal education, and high culture. The many, while potentially an ochlocracy, might also exemplify “homely” or ordinary virtues: earthiness, an acknowledgement of limits, an ethos of mutual reliance, rootedness, memory, and piety. Indeed, the virtues of each, if properly supported, cultivated, and maintained, could suppress the vicious tendencies of the other.
The mixed constitution, then, sought to combine the best elements of elites and demos. All thinkers in this tradition acknowledged that it was difficult to achieve, and once achieved, to maintain, and to do so required not rapid change, but long-standing stability, order, and balance. Akin to classical architecture, the classical tradition emphasized certain forms of political design that emphasized solidity, ease of maintenance, and endurance, ones that eschewed the revolutionary impulses of modern architecture—and modern politics.
The invention of liberalism was a wager that rapid change could always outstrip popular discontents. Each disruption would be followed upon by a yet newer one, keeping a restive demos in a constant state of superficial titillation even as it was forced to exert most of its energies in lagging efforts to adjust, while providing an atmosphere particularly conducive for a small progressive ruling class. That wager is now looking like a bad bet, with a result of deeply broken political, social, and economic arrangements. Each liberal party today continues to advance the notion that yet more disruptive change will bring about the cure of present discontents. The popular uprising has been directed against the liberationist agenda of both the liberal parties, demanding simultaneously an end to unbounded economics and an unbounded social domain. The many are demanding a better few—in significant part, to rule for the improvement of the many.
America is undergoing regime change. While the phrase is often used to invoke violent overturning of an existing ruling class, more accurately it refers to a fundamental change in the core values of a social and political order. The current liberal ruling class won’t give up its privileges without a fight, but lest that fight take the course feared by the classical thinkers—civil war or tyranny, or both in rapid oscillation—it would be better to acknowledge that the liberal wager has failed, and a post-liberal age must now emerge.