Suicide of the West:
How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy
by jonah goldberg
crown, 464 pages, $28
Jonah Goldberg exemplifies the decadence and dysfunction of today’s public discourse. According to his new book, the West has stumbled upon the ideal way of life, “the Miracle.” The exact content of the Miracle remains less than entirely clear. It’s the boon of unprecedented economic growth, though it goes beyond mere economics. It is the arrival of a culture based on the Enlightenment, capitalism, liberal democracy, constitutionalism, and free speech. In sum, the Miracle is our way of life.
Goldberg believes that the Miracle exists beyond rational justification—and therefore beyond critique. “There is no dialectic, inevitability, teleology, or hidden algorithm that made human success a foregone conclusion.” We can’t explain it as divine Providence, nor can we justify the Miracle on the basis of human nature. Goldberg thus jettisons the foundations of classical political philosophy: God, human nature, reason, and history. Critics may imagine that there could be a better way. But Goldberg assures us they are mistaken. We are “standing at the end of history,” and there is no alternative other than reactionary regression.
Several contradictions immediately appear. Goldberg’s claim that we live at the end of history rests uneasily with the repudiation of notions of historical progress, to say the least. He praises the Enlightenment for teaching us “that through reason and argument we can identify good ideas and bad.” But reason and argument are hard to sustain without at least one of the classical sources for judging political systems: divine revelation, historical teleology, or human nature.
Goldberg believes that “miracles defy explanation,” but this is not true. Theologians say that miracles cannot be explained naturalistically (scientifically), but of course they have supernatural (theological) explanations. During the wedding at Cana, Jesus turned water into wine, the “first of his signs.” Theological interpreters have explained this as an indication that Jesus will turn the old covenant into the new. The baptism of John by water becomes a baptism of the Holy Spirit.
Just as theological interpreters explain the miracle of Cana by placing it within the broader Christian story, people who reflect on politics inevitably try to understand events, institutions, and concepts by placing them within larger intellectual frameworks. Doing so allows us to test the coherence, cogency, and fittingness of our convictions. It also gives us grounds for questioning and correcting present arrangements. Goldberg rejects these grounds.
Since there is no reasonable basis for criticizing what Goldberg calls the liberal order, the only explanation for dissent is psychological—a psychosis, a regression, an irrational fear. He dismisses various populist movements as irrational even though they have asked us to answer some very reasonable questions: Should there be limits to globalization? What is the future of the Pax Americana? What is the role of the nation-state in the twenty-first century? How should we respond to mass migration? Can we sustain global prosperity while reorienting its benefits toward middle-class voters in the West?
Unfortunately, our intelligentsia seems unable to take up these and other pressing questions. Instead, it adopts a version of Goldberg’s strategy, which involves insisting, implausibly, that a late-model version of the center-left or center-right consensus is itself the liberal order.
For example, after 1945, a consensus developed that promoting free trade forestalls nationalist competition that leads to war. Free trade also unites America’s allies in common cause against communist aggression. It was a wise policy for a time, but it was not itself the liberal order. After all, in the decades before 1945, proponents of the liberal order in America pursued vigorous protectionist policies. Today, however, criticisms of economic globalization are denounced as anti-liberal, as if the post-1945 world order uniquely and finally realized the essence of liberalism—which is exactly what Goldberg implies.
This confusion of the present political consensus with the end of history is a constant temptation in the modern era. Modernity is whiggish. It seduces us into thinking that everything that comes before leads to the present, which finally realizes the true potential of earlier trends. After 1945, global free trade started as a prudent policy but ended in the minds of many as a foundational principle of “the liberal order.” After 1965, affirmative action and other policies were implemented to promote the goals of civil rights. Now some treat these contingent policies as the very essence of liberalism, criticism of which marks one as racist.
Goldberg is a conservative progressive. Where the progressive progressive anguishes over not-yet-achieved perfections of justice, he urges us to be thankful that history has brought us this far (progress), but then turns on a dime to insist that only a madman could imagine anything important needs to be changed (conservation). Imbued with a sense of world historical duty to defend the status quo, Goldberg would rather denounce populism than examine what it tells us about present dysfunctions of the postwar consensus, whether in its center-right or center-left form.
Goldberg is by no means alone. By and large, our political class has retreated into denunciation and wishful thinking, which is why an anti-elitist populism gains momentum. Peasants with pitchforks are dangerous, yes, but less so than our complacent political class. These people fail to recognize that while benefiting many, globalization has hollowed out the middle class in the developed West, thus imperiling liberal democracy. Our job is to rethink, readjust, and remediate so that the best of what has been achieved in recent decades can be preserved. Condemning every political challenge as a threat to “the liberal order” shirks responsibility.
In Goldberg, the habit of denunciation reaches absurd heights. He rehearses the tiresome conservative trope that Democrats are not true liberals but illiberal progressives. According to Goldberg, Trump voters are ingrates, moral hypocrites, and tribalistic “reactionaries.” So are Clinton and Sanders voters. He believes that ever since Woodrow Wilson, what goes by the name “liberal” in America has in fact been an anti-liberal form of reactionary regression from the Miracle. Anyone who defines Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt as enemies of the liberal order is a political propagandist, not a thinker concerned with understanding our populist-driven challenges.
Goldberg denounces populists for their tribalism and irrationality. Rather than countering them with arguments, he prescribes his own tribal loyalty: “The only solution to our woes is for the West to re-embrace the core ideas that made the Miracle possible, not just as a set of policies, but as a tribal attachment, a dogmatic commitment.” We will be saved if we pledge troth to anti-populist “modern American conservatism,” which is to say, the views of Jonah Goldberg and his friends. Their views are never clearly defined, presumably because conservatism is a tribe where loyalty matters more than ideas.
Of course, it is unfair to single Goldberg out. Such irrational denunciations have been common among our political elites over the last two years. They are right to intuit that we should regard our political inheritance with gratitude. But they cannot see that our political establishment and its latter-day dogmas are failing many of the people they were supposed to serve. Voters in Europe are coming to realize that the postwar doctrine of human rights—a noble achievement—disarms them in the face of mass migration. The evident enrichment brought by a more open and more global economic system erodes solidarity. Worthy fights against discrimination have metastasized into an animus against the western cultural inheritance.
A decade ago, Christopher Caldwell recorded the views of a European cabinet minister: “We live in a borderless world in which our new mission is defending the border not of our countries but of civility and human rights.” This utopian mentality substitutes moral purity for political duty. There are other expressions: “We live in a global economy, and our new mission is not to defend the economic interests of our fellow citizens but the interests of the entire world.” “We live in a multicultural society, and our new mission is not to pass on our cultural inheritance but to promote diversity.” These ways of thinking have become widespread and immensely destructive. Goldberg expresses a version, one akin to Angela Merkel’s take-your-medicine insistence that we have no alternative: “It’s the Miracle, buddy, and you better like it.” And we wonder why voters rebel?
Populism both reflects and accelerates the forces that are transforming the political culture of the West. As a response to those changes, Suicide of the West exemplifies the decadence of our political intelligentsia. We need conservatives (and liberals as well) who think about present political realities rather than inventing “miracles” that turn the supple, multifaceted political inheritance of the West into tribal totems. One place to start is with Augustine, who defined a commonwealth as a body of people united by a common love. In a liberal society that prizes individual freedom and religious pluralism, can we identify our common love? Populism cannot answer that question, but it has shown that our public intellectuals and political leaders can’t either.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.
Photo by Gage Skidmore via Creative Commons. Image cropped.