I recently finished listening to the audio version* of Jonah Goldberg’s “Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy.”
Goldberg’s central thesis is that the ideal state of Western civilization — capitalism, individual rights, pluralism, and limited government — is a “Miracle” that occurred very much by accident, and which could be easily lost. Partially the result of England’s island geography and unique cultural history, and partially the result of many other factors both named and unknowable, the Miracle deserves our gratitude, without which it cannot be preserved.
Goldberg writes in his usual style: very direct, clear, and approachable. He covers the history of the Miracle, its philosophical underpinnings, and the characteristics of modern society that are putting it at risk. Goldberg argues for the preservation of the Miracle, and against the forces that would undermine it, such as identity politics, nationalism, ingratitude — and, above all, tribalism.
To be sure, many of the principles Goldberg articulates are ones that I had heard before. Human nature has a tendency to be base and it takes civilization to overcome it. Virtue takes effort. Money and capitalism allows strangers to cooperate with one another, even across international boundaries, for the benefit of all. People want to be governed by a father figure, and any actions moving away from liberal democracy represent a reactionary tendency, towards our base nature of tribalism. The administrative state is a shadow government that poses a threat to our separation of powers and the legitimacy of our republic. These ideas are familar to me from years of reading libertarian and conservatarian writings. But not everyone has heard all these ideas, and seeing them all in one place is bracing even if you have seen them individually elsewhere.
One of the things I enjoyed about reading the book was picking up little bits of knowledge here and there that I hadn’t heard before. For example, Goldberg tells the reader about how those crazy biased cultural conservatives at Brookings have said that “most scholars now agree that children raised by two biological parents in a stable marriage do better than children in other family forms across a wide range of outcomes.” Another example: Goldberg notes that Robert Putnam, a Harvard sociologist, published a paper that (according to the words of its abstract) shows that “ethnically diverse neighbourhoods residents of all races tend to ‘hunker down’. Trust (even of one’s own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer.” Interesting points both.
What I particularly like about the way Goldberg introduces such facts, however, is that he doesn’t use them to make mindless over-the-top partisan arguments. He just wants us to be aware of them for what they’re worth, and nothing more.
For example, the Brookings conclusion about two-parent families with biological children could be used as a mindless partisan cudgel against, say, adoptive parents, but Goldberg points out the obvious point that adopted children are way, way better off than kids in foster homes, so that is not the point. The point is that marriage is the traditional basic building block of civil society — and when we abandon the family’s responsibilities to the state, bad things ensue.
Similarly, the citation of the Putnam study about diverse neighborhoods could be used (and indeed has been used) in a mindless partisan fashion, as many alt right Trump cultists have done, to suggest that diversity is always and everywhere bad. That’s not even Putnam’s view, by the way, as a blog post at the Chronicle of Higher Education notes:
In the short term, [Putnam] writes, there are clearly challenges, but over the long haul, he argues that diversity has a range of benefits for a society, and that the fragmentation and distrust can be overcome. It’s not an easy process, but in the end it’s “well worth the effort.” Putnam cites the integration of institutions like the U.S. Army as proof that diversity can work.
Goldberg’s point is not at odds with a fair reading of Putnam — i.e., Goldberg does not argue that diversity is bad. Instead, he relies on Putnam to remind the reader that there are dangers in ignoring the trust and other civic benefits that come from an integrated society — meaning that conservatives ought to be cautious about demographic changes that are overwhelming and sudden, threatening to break down those trust mechanisms and other civic benefits. We should prefer instead a society where immigrants assimilate into the culture while bringing their own diverse elements and strengths into the mix.
I said earlier that many of the concepts are familiar, but Goldberg does articulate one profound insight that I had never before heard expressed in quite this way: nationalism is socialism. Nationalism, as opposed to patriotism, ultimately rests on the rejection of individualism in favor of identifying oneself as part of the nation. Any way you slice it, that is what socialism is: the empowering of the state in all its forms to the detriment of the individual. That’s an important concept to internalize these days.
Of course, Trump superfans who love them some nationalism won’t like being called socialists. But I have a dirty little secret for you: if you’re a true-blue dyed-in-the-wool Trump superfan, you’re unlikely to like anything about this book. When I say Trump superfan, I’m not talking about people who are reluctant supporters of Trump as a lesser evil than Hillary. I’m talking about true fans of the man; people who believe he is of unimpeachable moral character and who believe he can do no wrong. Yeah: you folks aren’t going to like this book in particular — or Jonah Goldberg in general. Or this blog. Or me.
So be it.
Which is not to suggest that this is nothing but a book in opposition to Donald Trump. Far from it. Sure: near the end of the book, there is some direct criticism of Trump and Trumpism — including a characterization of the more extreme forms of Trump worship as “identity politics for white people” — but that is hardly the meat of the book.
Instead, the book is a cri de coeur against the increasing wave of tribalism that we see infecting all aspects of our culture. It’s a manifesto of revulsion at the culture’s apparent rejection of the unique characteristics of Western society — the Miracle — that truly made America great. It’s an inspiring and edifying and entertaining book. And it’s worth your time.
*The benefits of the audio version include the fact that Goldberg reads it himself, which I enjoyed very much (although I recommend jacking up the speed to 1.25x). Also you can listen in the car, which (along with the gym and walks) is one of the main places I do my “reading” these days, since finding time to sit down with a hard copy of a book is not always easy. The main disadvantage of the audio edition is that when one sits down to write a review such as this, one is unable to easily go back and revisit the text to make sure one is accurately representing the author’s thoughts. I hope I have not done any violence to Goldberg’s ideas in this review.
[Cross-posted at The Jury Talks Back.]