Patrick Deneen and the modernist flaws of the Founders

Patrick Deneen recently posted his argument that the Framers of the U.S. Constitution designed a regime predicated on problematic modernist assumptions.  This is a corollary to Deneen’s broader argument that “conservatives” and “liberals” are really all just modernists of one wave or another (see here and here).

This selection from Federalist 10 is one of his exhibits of the Framers’ problematic modernism:

“[R]epresentation is intended in the Constitutional system ‘to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice, will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen, that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good, than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for that purpose.’”

To be fair, there might be some problematic modernist elements in the Framers thinking.

However, I believe Deneen places too much blame on the Framers for our present day technocratic politics, increasing centralization, and weakened local community life while also misunderstanding the aims of their political project and the philosophy behind it.

Deneen apparently objects to the Federalists’ view of human nature.  Specifically, he identifies their belief that humans are more dependably self-interested than they are virtuous.  He also criticizes their method of moderating the influence of the electorate’s self-interest.

The punch line of his argument is that the Federalists’ view of human nature (e.g. man is selfish) in combination with their political response (e.g. representative government) necessarily leads to increasing centralization of power and greater detachment from politics on the part of the citizenry.

Deneen’s analysis hints at a better alternative, but he does not readily admit that human self-interest is as significant of a problem for pre-moderns or Anti-Federalists.

The Framers did not think that the Constitutional regime would be easy to keep.  Yet Deneen argues that they either had a severe lack of foresight or held dubious Machiavellian intentions.  I would argue that they sincerely believed that man had a latent capacity for virtue and that significant portions of political life are best dealt with at the local level.

For all the potentially overlooked similarities between classical liberals and progressives, Deneen under emphasizes their disagreement about the national government’s proper scope of responsibility.

Just because Madison and Hamilton sought to minimize factions on a national level by “extending the sphere” doesn’t mean they were also hoping radical disinterest would take place on a local level.

I hope Deneen will fill out a counter-factual of what the United States might look like today if the Founders’ wrong views of society, man and the purpose of government had been corrected.

As I said in the comments on his post, I have a hard time imagining an alternative to our Constitutional regime that wouldn’t devolve into a bunch of squabbling city-states fighting over North America’s vast natural resources, perpetuating their own mini-manifest destinies.


  • August 28, 2009

    Bryan Wandel

    Here’s a query for you: What happened to the direct democracy city-states of Athens and (sort of) Venice? As the Founders saw, they declined or went all oligarchy. The commercial prosperity of both seemed to necessitate foreign policy. And in the world of governments, there are no even grounds for speaking – ie it is undemocratic – not to mention a need to centralize (focus disparate energy) to fight a focused force.

    A number of kinds of democracy flourished in the middle ages, though, because they existed at a low level – the shire, the town, feudal farm – UNDERNEATH an autocratic or absolute authority, which was able to conduct foreign policy FOR them. At one level, a strong central government is what enables participation in public affairs.

  • August 28, 2009

    Bryan Wandel

    FURTHERMORE, it is an overarching principle of national identity which prevents us from being too serious about our particularities. Let’s be honest, one reason (among other, better reasons) for the appeal of localism is that we find quaintness fun. Local uniqueness looks good compared to mass homogeneity. But it is easy to misunderstand how really large the shift from actual particular constraints to the mass-ification of culture actually was. The Porchers think it is a big shift, and Deneen wants us to understand that it is bigger than we think. But it is bigger than HE thinks.
    When we attempt to go back to locality, we have a slight smirk. Just like when we brag about our home after leaving it – there is a certain levity. I think this levity is the source of the emotional appeal of Porcherism.
    However, for premoderns the constraints of particularity (unable to leave your own town, unable to learn a new trade, unable to know how to reorganize society) were actually quite grave.
    I am all for localism-with-levity, which is not so much localism-light as localism realistic. This has nothing to do with the frequency of your Wal-mart trips, but with comparing YOUR take on localism to PREMODERNS take on localism.
    I am not so much asserting the primacy of CHOICE over the Front Porchers’s stress on CONSTRAINTS, as I am hoping the Porchers will countenance their CHOICE of CONSTRAINTS, and what that means.

  • August 30, 2009

    Adam D'Luzansky

    Bryan: I don’t want to brush you off, but I’m having a hard time focusing in one what specific “query” you’d like me to respond to. I’ll take a swing at something for now…

    You say that central government enables participation in public affairs and you discuss the survival of local democratic institutions underneath a broader autocratic institution. I would first contest whether a centralized government is necessary for public affairs. I think the originally intended regime the Founders built valued a strong federalism of local decision making for a wide range of political issues. They did however see a rightful place for a national government to step in, especially for the national defense. I don’t think their original regime NECESSARILY devolves into any one particular alternative. But as I discuss in the post, the Founders were worried that their project would be hard to maintain. They knew it was risky, but unlike the moderns they weren’t dedicated to founding an “eternal republic.”

    Come back again, if you want to clarify your original line of inquiry.

  • August 30, 2009

    Adam D'Luzansky

    I would disagree that national identity prevents us from being serious about ALL aspects of our local identity (or particularities). Certainly the point of a national identity is to draw us out of being completely local oriented. However, if we agree on the proper roles each level of government should be responsible for, then we can be equally serious about local politics and national politics.

    On localism’s quaintness, I would also push back a bit. Maybe it’s because I immediately think of potentially non-quaint characteristics that localities can have (i.e. treating people unequally a la racism, religious discrimination, etc).

    But those pushbacks aside, it sounds like we’re both on the same team seeking to temper Porcher romanticizing of localism.

  • August 31, 2009

    Bryan Wandel

    1. National identity – I completely agree with you. I didn’t mean to say that national identity needs to subsume locality, in toto. I’m merely saying that Deneen localism receives a possibly beneficial supplement from national identity because the latter gives us perspective on the former.

    2. Agreement again! When I speak of the quaintness, I am talking about the APPEAL, the DRAW that some people feel toward localizing all things. What they MISS are the nonappealing features, such as racism or other essentialist discrimination, which are countered by some degree of universalism (ie “humanity”) – in other words the problem is part and parcel with particularism. Localists romanticize particularism by emphasizing community, and other appealing things, while refusing to acknoledge that their logic must lead one of two ways: (a) pure particularism, which leads to essentialism, superstitions, and other problems, or (b) localism that recognizes it uses some aspects of universalizing in order to solve these problems – ie “localism-with-levity.”
    Again, my comment was about the appeal, rather than the lived-out reality (which I think is not fully grappled with).

  • August 31, 2009

    Bryan Wandel

    Apologies: I was egotistically setting up my own point with the question.

  • […] I do, however, expect to end up being more Porcher friendly on this issue than I have been on others. “…aims at the examination of first principles in criticism…and the illustration of […]