Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy, by Jonah Goldberg (Crown Forum, 464 pp., $28)
Jonah Goldberg toggles between two weekly columns, a regular TV gig, a pair of podcast series, a weekly newsletter, an endowed chair at a think tank, and an editorial position at National Review. And yet, despite his ubiquity, the conclusion one reaches after finishing Goldberg’s new book, Suicide of the West, is that he is, if anything, underappreciated. Perhaps that’s a symptom of his success. Goldberg’s breezy style and comic sensibilities can mask his intellectual gifts. That the same individual who introduced the phrase “feckless crapweasel” into the conservative argot has written this sweeping volume about the origins of modern prosperity and the forces arrayed against it demonstrates a versatility that should inspire admiration from readers and envy from his fellow writers.
The book’s thesis is straightforward: the triumphs of the modern West—capitalism, liberalism (in the classical sense), rationalism—do not represent natural extensions of human nature, but rather the taming of it. As Goldberg explains in a mixture of political philosophy, intellectual history, and cultural analysis, most of mankind’s natural instincts—tribalism and suspicion of outsiders; emotionally driven romanticism; the search for security via strongmen—militate against anything like liberal democratic capitalism taking root. That it ever happened, and that it has managed to endure for some three centuries, inspires Goldberg’s term for the phenomenon: The Miracle. “If the 200,000-year life span of Homo sapiens were a single year,” he writes, “the vast majority of human economic progress would have transpired in roughly the last fourteen hours.”
Goldberg doesn’t attempt to provide a definitive answer for why these ideas managed to take hold (though he does offer a buffet of other thinkers’ diagnoses). Rather, he’s focused on the implications: if our enemy is human nature, then the battle is never truly won. Every generation must exert itself to keep the forces of decay from setting in.
What unnerves Goldberg, and explains the book’s downbeat title, is a sense that the rot is indeed taking hold. In the rise of identity politics and populism—both predicated on a zero-sum, Us vs. Them view of the world—he sees the reassertion of tribalism. In the electorate’s embrace of pronouncements like Barack Obama’s “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for” and Donald Trump’s “I alone can fix it,” he sees a bipartisan reversion to government as cult of the anointed, far from the vision of the Founders. In the decay of the family, he sees the erosion of civil society’s keystone institution, creating a vacuum ineffectively filled by an overreaching government.
Another author may have responded to this parade of horribles with a detailed policy agenda. Goldberg, however, sharing the late Andrew Breitbart’s belief that politics is downstream from culture, argues that a broader civic reorientation is a more pressing priority, and that such an awakening must begin with gratitude. Not only should citizens of free societies be cognizant of the wonder-working powers of The Miracle; they also ought to be mindful of its inherent contingency. Critics of the liberal order, Goldberg argues, are so fixated on its shortcomings that they are blinded to how it tends toward self-correction—and how the only thoroughgoing alternative is a reversion to the unhappy, pre-Miracle status quo. Making the perfect the enemy of the good is a luxury allowed only in societies where a steady supply of the good can be taken for granted.
Goldberg also argues persuasively against seeking transcendent meaning from politics. He essentially concedes the two predicates of romanticism’s hostility toward modernity: that man has an irrepressible thirst for a sense of meaning, and that liberal democratic capitalism does not slake it. He parts company with the romantics, however, because he views this condition as a feature, not a bug. Capitalism, to Goldberg, is nothing more than the best system we’ve discovered for organizing our economic affairs, and liberal democracy the best for organizing our political affairs. That should be enough. That neither is sufficient to fill the void in our souls is not an indictment of either but rather of those who ask them to carry more weight than they can (or should have to) bear.
Indeed, by Goldberg’s reading, any search for collective meaning will inevitably yield authoritarianism. “Save in times of war or some other existential crisis,” he writes, “meaning cannot be a mass, collective enterprise without crushing the rich ecosystem of institutions that actually give us meaning and ensure liberty and prosperity.” Family, friendship, religion, civil society—these are the only vessels of meaning compatible with a free society. Any god born out of the state will inevitably be a false one.
Considered as a whole, Suicide of the West belongs perhaps to a new genre, uniquely suited for our times: the civilizational self-help book. As such, it is divided into three parts. The first two contain sweeping analyses of human nature, The Miracle, capitalism, the state, the tension between reason and romanticism, and the American Founding. The third, more topical, section can be thought of as the Goldberg Netflix special: a distillation of much of his best recent work, with contemporary developments pressed into the service of the thesis advanced earlier. That fusion is more or less seamless in 2018. How it will come off to future readers remains to be seen. If Goldberg is right that we’re already seeing the leading indicators of decline, and if his warnings go for naught, then the third section will eventually read like a stop sign that went unheeded. If, however, we right the ship, then the book’s concluding section will become decidedly secondary to the rest of the volume. Either way, the first two parts of this book—masterfully crafted and responsive to timeless questions—should be relevant beyond its author’s lifetime.
Long one of conservatism’s wittiest defenders, Jonah Goldberg turns out to be one of its best contemporary theorists as well. With Suicide of the West, he has provided a topographical map charting the road back from decline.