Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy
by Jonah Goldberg
New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018
Jonah Goldberg’s latest book is mature, well researched, and demonstrates that the author has lost none of his penchant for witty observations about pop culture. He tackles some very big ideas with vigor — though his conclusions may not please many conservative readers.
The book’s thesis is that some of the West’s most cherished institutions and beliefs — such as liberalism, capitalism, democracy, and human rights — are fundamentally unnatural. Many of these developments came together randomly in the 18th century in Great Britain before spreading to other Western countries. That this happy confluence was written neither in the stars nor in our nature means that it was nothing short of what Goldberg calls ‘a Miracle’.
Human nature, by contrast, tends toward tribalism and violence — and these have characterized much of human history prior to this Miracle. This tendency has re-emerged, says Goldberg, in various ideological forms of both the Left and the Right: from fascism and communism to romanticism and racism.
The sheer randomness and unnaturalness of the Miracle — i.e. our shared belief in liberal democracy and capitalism — means that it is particularly subject to decay or what Goldberg terms “corruption”. For this reason, we must work very hard to preserve it, an effort which begins with approaching the Miracle with a spirit of gratitude.
Goldberg proceeds rather historically, with earlier chapters outlining our very flawed and tribal human nature. He considers the emergence of the state, the ideological conflict between John Locke (the greatest theorist of the Miracle, says Goldberg) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (who Goldberg sees as the philosophical precursor of modern forms of tribalism). A central chapter focuses on the watershed moment of human history when the Founding Fathers of the U.S. elaborated the philosophical tenets of the Miracle and enshrined them in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. The latter half of the book then demonstrates the steady degeneration of the Founding Fathers’ vision, with Goldberg advancing his argument in a way that will be familiar to readers of his earlier work, Liberal Fascism, with references to pop culture, the family, and President Donald Trump, whose election was an affirmation of Goldberg’s central thesis.
At times, one wonders whether this work would have been more aptly titled, Suicide of the United States of America. Goldberg’s “West” is very America-focused with a few comments inserted here and there concerning recent populist developments in Europe. As a Canadian who has been living in Europe for the past ten years, I found myself wondering whether I would really appreciate the fruits of the Miracle more if I lived in the United States. If the U.S. is the only free and prosperous country on account of its Constitution, and other Western countries are comparatively servile, then servility loses much of its meaning and undesirability.
When Goldberg writes of the “West”, he is also decidedly referring to the West of the Enlightenment; the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions are conspicuously absent from his narrative. This may grate some readers who believe that there is such a Western tradition, antedating the Enlightenment and the Founding Fathers.
Goldberg is clearly a fan of classical liberalism, with its focus on the individual, freedom, and property rights vis-à-vis the state. Collectivism is permissible — not in the state but in the ‘space’ between the state and the individual: that which others refer to as “civil society” and which comprises the various organizations to which we may choose to belong (e.g. churches, clubs, schools, etc.). Thus, Goldberg argues that identity and meaning in our lives should be sought in the “little platoons” of civil society.
Is that the only goal that individuals can set for themselves in a liberal democracy? An ancient Greek, for example (not to mention nationalists, progressives, communists, socialists, and many other groups of various political persuasions nowadays) might also ask: What is our common political project? What is it that unites us? Can a classical liberal have a political project — or is he thrown helplessly back into his little platoon, one amongst many, each disconnected from each other and doing their own things?
Goldberg is not ignorant of such questions; indeed, he acknowledges that a little nationalism can be healthy and useful in binding a country’s citizens together, presumably in the interest of preserving liberal democratic capitalism. But there may be certain collective projects whose meaning cannot be fully realized within the context of a small civil society grouping.
For example, can a true religious believer acknowledge that others have different moral systems and that they are all equally correct? If so, then that must mean there is a point at which he chooses to suspend his religious belief, perhaps right at the moment that it would conflict with a higher morality that he has set for himself (i.e. liberalism). If he cannot accept this, then he will never feel entirely fulfilled by practicing his religion only within the context of civil society, since there will always be pockets of individuals who are shielded from the reach of his faith. And if his religion is a universalist and proselytizing one, then it would be immoral not to mobilize the power of the state and impose it on others.
I bring up the religious example here because, at the beginning of his book, Goldberg makes a point of declaring that there is no God in his book. This may make sense if one is trying to create a ‘secular space’ in which to bring both Right and Left together (and there is certainly much to be found in Suicide of the West that could appeal to left-wingers) for a discussion about what is worth preserving in the West. But by casting out God in general, and reducing all of these aspirations to residual tribal impulses of our natural selves, Goldberg seems to be missing quite a lot of what has empirically been considered important for humans through the ages.
If we are already at the end of history, as Goldberg suggests, then the ‘end of history’ looks a lot like previous moments in time — and it is quite underwhelming to say the least. People will thus find little meaning in measures that are perfectly consonant with liberal democratic capitalism (like cutting taxes). The problem with the Miracle then, ironically, is that it is so prosaic.
Goldberg’s explanation that human behaviour results more or less from our animalistic selves is only part of the story. It has become quite fashionable these days to discuss human beings as if we were nothing more than slightly more developed apes, stressing all the commonalities we have with the rest of the animal kingdom and none of the differences. But until apes (or our thumbless, mammal brethren) begin to build what we have built over centuries — be it our impressive feats of architecture, technological advances, the arts, political systems, and the written word, to name but a few — then we must perforce concede that there is something more to human nature than just tribal instinct and group feeling.
Perhaps for too many centuries the philosophers focused on separating man from beast on the basis of the former’s reason or being made in God’s image — and now, in our more natural scientific age, we seek to ‘right the balance’ by stressing our several similarities with the beasts. Still, Goldberg’s thesis seems to rely heavily on an appeal to that very reason that is so often foiled by our nature (as Goldberg defines our nature). If it is so unnatural for us to act as Goldberg advises, then on what grounds can we be expected to act?
On the one hand, we could employ our reason, against our nature, and see the comparatively superior benefits of liberal democratic capitalism. We would then have to ask ourselves what it is that we love so much about the Miracle. Are the only things of value free speech, owning property, and voting? I am sure Goldberg would say ‘no’; but he would likely hasten to add that these institutions are preconditions for many other enjoyments.
So is it possible that other enjoyments produced by the Enlightenment do not end up undoing the philosophy itself? The Rousseauian romanticism that Goldberg maligns was itself a reaction against what appeared to be the rigid, mechanistic dogmatism of the Enlightenment.
On the other hand, if reason is not enough to justify the preservation of the Miracle, then the other alternative is to take a leap of faith in our love and defence of the Miracle. But leaps of faith are required only when there is uncertainty about the truth or value of the object of that faith. If there is room for doubt about the superiority and splendour of liberal democratic capitalism then why shouldn’t we push for better forms of social organization?
Goldberg’s work is a broad-based appeal to defend a political order that appears to be declining all over the world. An interesting addition to the classical liberal canon, Suicide of the West reflects some of the more unsatisfying aspects of classical liberalism as a philosophy. Goldberg claims that the vision encapsulated in the Founding Fathers’ work is the end of history and we have only to preserve that heritage. That vision and all of the benefits that have sprung from it are of great value indeed, and we should be grateful. But there is still something missing.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about Goldberg’s argument is the idea that he could be right.