Patrick Deneen on Grand New Party

Professor Deneen has written a very generous review of Grand New Party for First Principles, and he raises a worthy objection at the close of the essay.

However, one aspect of their overall argument seems wildly out of tune with contemporary reality: namely, their call for further investment in the exurban build-out, greater expenditure on the infrastructure supporting automobile transportation, and a call to take advantage of America’s “wide open spaces.” While they doubtlessly are correct to see a degree of censorious scolding among critics of exurban sprawl—the current reviewer among them—the debate on where and how people should organize their lives is now being rapidly outstripped by the reality of mounting energy and transportation costs. To the extent that they seek to invigorate an American sense of optimism by means of further massive investment based on cheap transportation, their book unfortunately reads as already dated at the time of its publication.

While I believe that density has its place — like Christopher Leinberger, I sense that we’ll see more density rather than less, as there is a great deal of pent-up demand for traditional walkable urbanism; moreover, my preferences strongly run in that direction as well, speaking as a non-car-driving lifelong urbanite — I also think that inexpensive housing and inexpensive mobility has been a very good and valuable thing, recognizing also that this has tended to undermine a certain kind of neighborhood. The most flourishing neighborhoods of the present tend to be truly intentional communities, populated to a large extent by migrants, drawn together by shared cultural sensibilities. This is true of gentrifying neighborhoods in our big cities, but also of, say, upper-middle-class African American suburbs in Atlanta and Washington. There are costs associated with this, and I’m a firm believer that cities need to emphasize the interests of working-class and middle-class neighborhoods to the extent possible and that there is value in the kind of diversity of culture and class and experience you find in what you might call unintentional communities. I guess I’m sympathetic to what you might call anti-anti-suburbanism.

Professor Deneen continues:

A return to more local economies and communities will happily mean less government intrusion in the daily affairs of the citizenry; however, the transition from our energy-intensive and wasteful society of sprawl and exurbia will also certainly require ingenuity and responsiveness on the part of government—just not in the form of continued investment in a way of life that has no future. The sooner that Douthat and Salam themselves come to this realization, the sooner they may be able to offer creative new solutions based not on a misplaced sense of optimism, but on a real sense of hope for the health of local communities, vibrant and living traditions, and networks of families.

While I find the world Deneen invokes attractive, I am more optimistic about the prospects of preserving our mobility in less carbon-intensive society and I have decidedly mixed feelings about the prospect of returning to more local economies. This can mean many different things, from a distributist, MacIntyrean turn — which I consider unlikely if not impossible — to a society in which fabrication machines and resilient infrastructure reduce the vulnerability of the long supply chains on which we’ve all come to depend. The latter model strikes me as attractive and probably necessary, as it embraces what is best in globalization, namely the rich intellectual interchange that has, in my view, made the world a more innovative, prosperous place in recent decades, for all the attendant harms that have gone along with this overwhelmingly positive shift; and the latter model strikes me as narrowing and potentially tragic.

This merits more serious and sustained discussion. Suffice to say, I greatly admire Professor Deneen, but I think we don’t see eye to eye on some of the essential questions regarding the future of the natural environment and what social conservatism ought to mean.