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Why Liberalism Failed author Patrick Deneen on how liberalism is ruining our love lives

What if all the choices we have in love hasn't actually made us happier?

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PHOTO COURTESY OF NOTRE DAME
  • Photo courtesy of Notre Dame

Hey, you can't blame me for the click-baity headline. After all, it's not much more clickbaity than the title of author Patrick Deneen's book, Why Liberalism Failed.

But to be clear Deneen doesn't mean "liberalism" in the same way that Rush Limbaugh means "liberalism." His definition is far more encompassing, far more embedded into modern thought than a political party platform.

Deneen defines liberalism as an Enlightenment-era shift away from the concept of a person as a part of a larger community and toward the person as an individual.

Under this definition, liberalism stresses that your own choices are the defining factor that make you who are.

Liberalism, Deneen argues, has long made ideals of freedom and opportunity. The purpose of society, liberalism argues, is to expand the number of choices available to us. Instead of simply being set on one basic track for our entire lives, we get told we can do anything.

The assumption that more choice is better is rarely even debated anymore. It has simply become a part of the philosophical oxygen we breathe.

Deneen argues in Why Liberalism Failed that maybe that's a bad thing. Maybe the ideology of individualism and personal achievement and limitless choices, he says, have actually left us desperate, aimless and lonely.

So with Deneen speaking at Gonzaga University next week, we took the opportunity to talk to him about that most Valentine's Days of topics: Love.

Deneen argues that liberalism, in many ways, has radically shifted the way we date, love and marry.

"This worldview, that we don’t recognize shapes us, in fact, alters something so profound and fundamental as our ability to form lasting relationships," he says.

And that change, he notes, has been apparent even within a single generation.

"I often say to my students that I have no special envy for their condition," says Deneen, a professor at Notre Dame.

A long time ago, he says, many marriages were arranged. Think, like, Fiddler on the Roof.

"Then we moved to a condition where we had choice, but that choice was still somewhat constrained by religion, often by nationality, even by place — the people who you happen to grow up with. We’ve gone to a condition now into which, when you think about dating or marriage, you have basically a global marketplace of choices."

That goes beyond just the cacophony of dating apps — your Tinders, your Grindrs, your OKs Cupid. Think about how Facebook and Instagram loosely connect us to thousands of acquaintances from our past and present. Possibility is everywhere. And that possibility can get exhausting. 

"You go from a world in which, in some ways, you have a world where you could say you have to 'settle' to a world where you never have to settle,” Deneen says. 

He means that in two senses: You don't have to "settle down" and you don't have to settle down for anything less than you think you want.

"Think about the consumerization of all of our lives," Deneen says. "Well, if I don’t like this product I’ll take it back or I’ll find a replacement for it. "I think that this does describe this increasing inability of people to form lasting relationships."

He says he sees his students struggling to deal with all the possible outcomes.

"Their general reaction is one of feeling paralyzed," he says. "The fear that if you make a choice that you come to regret, you’ll have all the negative repercussions of that. So it tends to prevent people from making a choice at all. We’re in this ironic condition where you have near infinite choice and yet in some ways we can’t make certain kinds of choices."

He sees some people reacting to this problem by simply sticking to the surface level: Sample from the buffet. People hook up. They become friends with benefits. They try to get some of the beauty of relationships without the risk of investment.


"In other words, people crave relationships, they crave intimacy and contact. But they don't want to actually endanger their freedom to alter or change those choices," he says. "So you have simultaneously a paralysis about the deep commitments, while you have, you know, what I think is seen as a superficial set of relationships, that doesn’t seem to me ultimately satisfying to the human soul."

In other ways, however, we see the opposite trend. People are foregoing sexual relationships all together.

A recent Atlantic cover story, "Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?" details declining rates of sexual activity, particularly among young people. The reasons go beyond my video-games-are-really-good-right-now theory. Young people are simply dating a lot less. Some of it's that young people are busy. But another issue is the way that smartphone culture has dismantled the clarity of our traditional this-is-an-official date infrastructure.

While apps like Tinder were supposed to re-establish that certainty, it turns out they're pretty inefficient at leading to relationships — or even sex.

The Atlantic article briefly touches upon Deneen's theory.

Many critiques of online dating, including a 2013 article by Dan Slater in The Atlantic, adapted from his book A Million First Dates, have focused on the idea that too many options can lead to “choice overload,” which in turn leads to dissatisfaction. Online daters, he argued, might be tempted to keep going back for experiences with new people; commitment and marriage might suffer. Michael Rosenfeld, a sociologist who runs a longitudinal study out of Stanford called “How Couples Meet and Stay Together,” questions this hypothesis; his research finds that couples who meet online tend to marry more quickly than other couples, a fact that hardly suggests indecision.

Maybe choice overload applies a little differently than Slater imagined. Maybe the problem is not the people who date and date some more — they might even get married, if Rosenfeld is right — but those who are so daunted that they don’t make it off the couch. This idea came up many times in my conversations with people who described sex and dating lives that had gone into a deep freeze. Some used the term paradox of choice; others referred to option paralysis (a term popularized by Black Mirror); still others invoked fobo (“fear of a better option”).
To Deneen, it's not just that people are missing out on marriage. It's that the concept of love itself has been corrupted. He says that love hasn't traditionally been seen as something you create through the choices you make. It's about how the people you love change you to your core. He says that's something that he sees clearly after 25 years of marriage. He didn't make the person he is today, at least not exclusively. His wife and his children played a radical role in who he is.

"In a society where people have a more and more difficult time forming lasting relationships, in a society when fewer and fewer of us are going to have children, we’re not going to have that experience of a transformative love," Deneen says. "We haven’t ceased to use the language of love, but what we mean by it may have changed."

“Why Liberalism Failed” • Wed, Feb. 20 at 7 pm •
Gonzaga University’s Hemmingson Center Ballroom