Conserving America?

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192 pages, 6" x 9", Acknowledgments, notes index

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Conserving America?

Essays on Present Discontents

Deneen, Patrick J.

Opinions about America have taken a decisive turn in the early part of the 21st century. Some 70% of Americans believe that the country is moving in the wrong direction, and half the country thinks that its best days are behind it. Most believe that their children will be less prosperous and have fewer opportunities than previous generations. Evident to all is that the political system is broken and social fabric is fraying, particularly as a growing gap between wealthy haves and left-behind have-nots increases, a hostile divide widens between faithful and secular, and deep disagreement persists over America’s role in the world. Wealthy Americans continue to build gated enclaves in and around select cities where they congregate, while growing numbers of Christians compare our times to those of the late Roman empire, and ponder a fundamental withdrawal from wider American society into updated forms of Benedictine monastic communities. The signs of the times suggest that much is wrong with America.

This collection of thematic essays by Notre Dame political theorist and public intellectual Patrick Deneen addresses the questions, is there something worth conserving in America, and if so, is America capable of conservation? Can a nation founded in a revolutionary moment that led to the founding of the first liberal nation be thought capable of sustaining and passing on virtues and practices that ennoble? Or is America inherently a nation that idolizes the new over the old, license over ordered liberty, and hedonism over self-rule? Can America conserve what is worth keeping for it to remain—or even become—a Republic?

Noting the discontent with the left/right categories that dominate public discussion and define the American political imaginary, Deneen examines a variety of political, social, and cultural themes as means of renewal. While American conservatives tend to view a return to glory requiring a return to Constitutional principles, Deneen regards “present discontents” as arising in significant part due to the realization of, rather than deviation from, the basic liberal principles embedded in the American Constitutional order. America’s strengths have arisen not from its theory, but from its historical practice, which served as leaven and a fundamental corrective to its mistaken theories of liberal individualism and economistic materialism. And while American progressives regard the solution to this philosophy lying in a statist and collectivist vision of national community, Deneen argues that this conclusion only grows out of, and ultimately reinforces, the individualism of our official philosophy.

The essays together propose an integrated vision of “another America,” one that seeks above all a renewal of practices of community, local identity, civic attentiveness, cultural variety, and religious flourishing as the underpinnings of a flourishing republic. Guided especially throughout by the thought of Alexis de Tocqueville, Deneen calls for a deepening of the “arts of association” and a renewal of the connection between “the spirit of liberty” and “the spirit of religion.” Based upon lectures originally delivered to audiences of college students, the book is accessible and free of academic jargon, seeking rather to connect intimately with thinking citizens who want to know what’s wrong with America.

Patrick J. Deneen is David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Political Science and Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He is author of two books—The Odyssey of Political Theory and Democratic Faith—and co-editor of three volumes, as well as author of numerous articles and book reviews. His essays have appeared in such publications as First Things, The Hedgehog Review, Intercollegiate Review, Front Porch Republic, The American Conservative, and The Imaginative Conservative. He lives in South Bend with his wife and three children.