Jonah Goldberg’s Burkean Turn
We conservatives have a thing for civilizational self-harm. In 2011, Pat Buchanan’s Suicide of a Superpower warned that mass immigration and secularism could make the United States unrecognizable in 15 years. Further back in 1964, James Burnham’s Suicide of the West made gloomy noises about America’s odds of surviving the Cold War. Type “suicide of America” into Amazon’s prompt box—my colleague Daniel Kishi would label this a monumental act of irony—and lesser entries quickly populate: America on Suicide Watch, The Suicide of Reason, A Free People’s Suicide. The hour in these tomes is forever late; the country shuffles inexorably towards its doom. Durkheim might have discredited the notion that more people kill themselves during winter, but clearly there exists a bleak and snow-driven quarter of the conservative mind.
Now Jonah Goldberg has another entry in the pessimism genre. His new book, channeling Burnham, is called Suicide of the West, and it’s tempting to say that if Goldberg of all people has spotted signs of our undoing then we really are in serious trouble. A National Review stalwart for many years, he’s well known for his upbeat and pop culture-infused conservative commentary. Then again his most famous release, Liberal Fascism, explored the ideology behind Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, so it may be said that he writes chipper blog posts periodically interrupted by books about the most grindingly depressing subjects on the planet. The method of Goldberg’s Suicide, distinct from Buchanan’s loss of cultural coherence and Burnham’s forfeiture of power, is the forsaking of our classical liberal values, which were forged in the Enlightenment and found their highest expression in the United States of America. These include the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, along with the subordination of the state to the people rather than the other way around.
Reading Goldberg’s Suicide of the West, one is struck by its similarities to another book: Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. Both Goldberg and Pinker—the former occasionally cites the latter—defend the fruits of modernity against what they see as an epidemic of ingratitude. We live in the wealthiest, freest country in the wealthiest, freest time in the history of the world, yet we’re nonetheless restless, unthankful. But whereas Pinker’s view of the modern West is durable and determinist—a thundering wave of progress that scatters objectors like so much chum—Goldberg sees it as delicate and precarious, easily shattered by a sudden move in the wrong direction. It is also unnatural, a contrast to “the natural state of mankind” that Goldberg characterizes as “grinding poverty punctuated by horrific violence terminating with an early death.” We escaped that muddy prison almost by accident, thanks to the triumph of liberal ideas evolved tortuously over centuries until they came to full blossom in Great Britain. And our return to incarceration is still very much a possibility.
It should be obvious that Goldberg, one of the Right’s most sulphurous Donald Trump critics, sees the president as on the wrong side of this battle. But it is in all of our mirrors, not just Trump’s gold-framed one, that he spots the agent of our destruction. Human nature itself is forever beckoning us out of the modern world, back into our primordial state. The Christians call it the Fall, Kant lamented the “crooked timber of humanity,” Madison more innocently observed that men aren’t angels. However you characterize our innate potential for evil, Goldberg worries it might yet tear down all that we’ve accomplished. He’s particularly bothered over tribalism, our tendency to fracture into antagonistic identity groups, which he sees as a deeply embedded feature in man’s nature. Classical liberalism requires a suspension of this tribal instinct so that man is governed as an individual, not a member of a group or class. Today, though, tribalism is reasserting itself. Goldberg sees this both on the Right with the Trump phenomenon and the Left with its unbending creed of identity politics.
The battle lines, then, don’t so much track between Trump and social justice warriors, opposite sides of the same coin so far as Goldberg is concerned. They run between those who seek to defend our liberal traditions and those who yearn to tear them down in pursuit of an Atlantis mirage masking a barbarian past. This divide is chronological: the greatest change ever in political affairs came at the end of the 17th century, when the Glorious Revolution affirmed the primacy of Britain’s parliament, John Locke published his Second Treatise on Government, and man began a rapid ascent out of poverty. Goldberg refers to this unbelievable stroke of good fortune as “the Miracle.” The divide also manifests itself in modern philosophy. Goldberg’s historical villains are the Romantics, inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom he pits against Locke and figures of the Enlightenment. Whereas Rousseauians believe that “man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,” Lockeans contend that society keeps man free by protecting his rights; whereas Rousseauians demand that man conform to a collectivized “general will,” Lockeans see the individual as the necessary political unit.
It is from Rousseau that we get Marxist utopias and reactionary theocracies—excuses, really, for the brutal rule of one tribe over another, while the Lockeans find their paramount expression in the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Suicide of the West, then, is at its heart an apologetic for the American project against those who view it as incurably diseased. That and Goldberg’s contention that the United States can be ruined only from within, not by a foreign enemy such as the Soviet Union, distinguish this Suicide from its Cold War-era namesake. Goldberg doesn’t get around to mentioning Burnham until page 115, whereupon he quickly (and correctly) dismisses him as too enamored with the politics of power rather than the power of ideas. Ideas, Goldberg counters, can change the world, just as Enlightenment insights did three centuries ago. This intellectual tradition is our supreme inheritance, the best political arrangement we will ever have, and in need of preservation lest it be displaced.
There is a tendency among some to deride more mainstream conservatives as “Conservatism Inc.” At its best, this is a fitting description of the Right’s Tomi Lahren screamo quarter, whose shock jocks are more interested in enriching themselves than enriching our discourse. At its worst, it’s a utility sneer by those who have just read Reflections on the Revolution in France for the first time and now believe themselves to inhabit a vastly higher plane of existence where the name “Ronald Reagan” can never again be uttered without irony. Any assessment of Suicide of the West must begin by acknowledging that whatever “Conservatism Inc.” is, it isn’t this. Goldberg has crafted a serious and informed argument that the increasingly troll-overpopulated modern Right would do well to read. (In fact, if anything, Goldberg ladles too much into his bowl, inundating the reader with quotes and occasionally straying too far from his central argument.) Classical liberalism is also not self-evidently out of gas, as some on Twitter regularly proclaim; its arguments must still be wrangled with, even if they’re familiar to us as Americans.
Suicide of the West belongs alongside Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic, and other challenging treatises that have taken Trump’s ascendance as an opportunity to reexamine first principles. So how about it? Is the West at risk of reversing its liberal deliverance? On the larger point, Goldberg gets much right. We do have plenty to be thankful for when cast against the brutality of our past, including the Bill of Rights, plummeted infant mortality rates, unprecedented security from violence. Much of this was influenced by classical liberalism’s emphasis on free inquiry and individual liberty. Reducing the Enlightenment to mostly scientific racism and abortion, as some critics of liberalism do, is intellectually unserious, the former having itself been largely snuffed out by classical liberal principles and the latter a hideous violation of the right to life identified by Locke and the Founders. There is also no case-closed reason why our current problems can’t be solved within a liberal framework—even Deneen, as eeyorish on modernity as anyone you’ll find, closes his book by recommending solutions that work within liberalism itself.
Goldberg is further correct that hanging-ten on the Trump wave are a variety of anti-liberal thinkers, from socialists to Catholic integralists to nationalists. Asterisks hover overhead: nationalists such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Poland’s Law and Justice party, for example, aren’t nearly as anti-liberal as they’re made out to be (the much-denounced judicial reforms of Law and Justice seem calibrated to make Polish courts more neutral in their jurisprudence rather than less). And not all of these thinkers, contra Goldberg, can be explained away by trashing Rousseau: while they might be called small-r romantics, integralists and nationalists would counter that they’re calling for more society, more hierarchy, rather than a Rousseauian emancipation from any and all historical institutions. Nonetheless, Goldberg is on the nail when he espies the tribalism in these ideologies. Socialists rally “the poor” against “the rich.” Trump partisans want to wrest the “real America” from the “globalists.” Such thinking is seductive because, in line with our nature and in contrast to classical liberalism, it turns politics into an exercise in joining a team and crushing the other side.
But is all tribalism really so bad? I indulge my own inner tribalist whenever I root for the New England Patriots or defend America to skeptical foreigners. Such exertions of my identity aren’t likely to start wars anytime soon (outside the city of Philadelphia anyway), but they’re still tribal in that I’m irrationally siding with groups into which I was born. Liberalism doesn’t cancel the tribal impulse, then; it just siphons it into more harmless conduits. This makes sense: if tribalism is a feature of human nature and if human nature is immutable, then tribalism is inevitable and must find expression somewhere. And one of those espousals is surely national identity: the country in which one is raised, the language one is schooled to speak, the historical figures one learns to venerate, the customs that order one’s life. Intensify this pride too much and shades of World War II appear, but in smaller doses—cheering on Team USA in the World Cup, for example—it is surely benign and even healthy.
It isn’t clear why this innocuous tribalism can’t coexist with liberalism. In fact, it seems to me that the grievance of most populist voters isn’t against liberal rights; it’s that liberalism has become a misnomer for a mutant ideology that seeks to erase those borders, shred those flags, silence those anthems, block (or at least reroute) those harmless conduits of tribalism. Certainly the European Union wants this; its leaders have said so outright. As classical liberalism is concerned, this is more a matter of geography than substance. People want to live freely, but to be governed from home and by their fellow countrymen. Yet Goldberg, though allowing that some nationalism may be necessary and separating nationalism from patriotism, never quite explains where these instincts are supposed to go, at least not beyond the old (and worthwhile) argument that trade diffuses tribalism by giving diverse peoples a monetary interest in each other. But surely economics can’t wholly suppress what is innate. Instead, Goldberg is content to place tribalism and liberalism in opposition, and that’s that.
In addition to being tribalist, man is also communal, desiring a social order in which he has a comfortable place, in need of institutions warmer and more intimate than the faceless state. Goldberg acknowledges all this, and the end of Suicide at times crunches along with the best of Rod Dreher, with warnings that false deities will fill the void when God is abandoned and calls for the rebuilding of America’s civic institutions. Goldberg is no radical individualist or even a libertarian; he’s an American small-c conservative, hearkening back to America’s early days when government was kept at bay by a vast matrix of more local associations. But he also subscribes to another component of the American credo: capitalism, which he sees as part and parcel of the Miracle. Anti-capitalism to him is just another offshoot of Romanticism, a yearning for an impossible world free of self-interest and inequality.
It is here that the most obvious critique of Goldberg’s argument arises, and he never quite answers it. To flesh it out, let’s turn to another thinker, Erich Fromm, whose 1941 book, Escape From Freedom, psychoanalyzed Germany under Nazi rule. Fromm, like Goldberg, was concerned with preserving Western liberty, but he worried that freedom had the negative effect of making man “isolated and, thereby, anxious and powerless.” For Fromm, capitalism, though it freed man to pursue his ambitions, removed him from the structured security that was provided by the guilds and stable small economies of the Middle Ages. This left him feeling alienated and increasingly separated from the products of his own hands (a concern that’s haunted philosophers from Marx to Deneen). It also created economic entities that dwarfed him—jobs where management is distant, large department stores that make shopping impersonal, national political parties that don’t speak to his problems. This loneliness and smallness makes him long for a warm place in a more visceral hierarchy—enter the National Socialists.
The trends that vexed Fromm have only accelerated today, as Christmas presents are purchased from gigantic retailers at the click of a mouse and corporate buyouts darken the skies above small businesses. Such consolidation is not the whole story of American capitalism, but it is a consequence of a globalized world where multinationals sprawl across borders. Both the Trump revolt and the Left’s identity politics can be understood in part as structures of resistance against these behemoth institutions.
Goldberg acknowledges that such alienation is a possibility. He agrees with Joseph Schumpeter that free markets can tear apart civic institutions and concedes that “capitalism itself is a big part of the problem” he’s diagnosing. But then he skates past the obvious question this raises: if corporate capitalism has helped engender the tribalism that now threatens us all, might the solution be anti-capitalist policies like antitrust laws that curtail big business? Might we need to infringe on the capitalist doctrine Goldberg cherishes to save the Miracle from itself?
Or take Goldberg’s treatment of unions. Among his many objections to organized labor is that it blocks competition and creative destruction. This creates entropy, meaning the rot that occurs if a society is prevented from moving forward and changing, a key bogey for both Pinker and Goldberg (who more often refers to it as corruption or decay). Certainly we’ve seen this within big organizations such as AFSCME, whose national leaders often seem concerned above all with making money. But then why do so many workers still cling to unions? The answer is, while a society that gallops ahead might make sense to the capitalists, it doesn’t always work for the hardhats, who want steady jobs and view their local chapters as preserving what matters amidst frenzied change. A towering economy that blazes forth is inimical to the stable lives desired by most.
Call me devil’s advocate: I don’t wholly disagree with Goldberg’s denunciations of nationalism or embrace of capitalism. And his skepticism of big government certainly resonates with me: anyone who’s ever lived in Washington knows that “tribal” is a good way to describe federal workers who are more likely to pursue their own interests than set about implementing anyone’s conception of the common good. Still, these two realities—the harmlessness (even healthfulness) of some tribal nationalism and the impersonality of today’s mammoth institutions—are too easily dismissed by elites, which is one reason the populist wave continues to deluge capitals. That populism, whatever you think of it, is responding to something real and malignant, something that could be attributed to the excesses of globalist, capitalist liberalism.
Fortunately, these voids do not stretch across the whole of Suicide, which in toto is a valuable reminder of all that we stand to lose—and in healthy proportion, too. Unlike Pinker, whose book feels like being strapped to a chair while a man covered in smiley-face stickers screams “EVERYTHING IS AWESOME” through a bullhorn for 400 pages, Goldberg is fully aware of the problems plaguing our polities. His case is for cautious self-correction, for historical context, for a third way between the pigtailed Polyannas who think America will endure forever and the dire doomsayers who see liberalism as The Blob, consuming everything and atomizing us in muck.
Though Suicide stays mostly clear of Edmund Burke, it is ultimately the florid Irish MP whom Goldberg ends up channeling the most, with his defenses of our patrimony and our present here and now. Suicide is a warning that bum-rushing towards an abstract tomorrow, as the French revolutionaries did, could bankrupt us of the wisdom that’s been accumulated in the America of today. That might sound laughable in an era of YouTube celebrities and Goldman Sachs, Donald Trump and Samantha Bee: really, could it get any worse? The answer is that it most certainly could, that it has been, and that rocking the boat too violently may make it so yet again.
Matt Purple is managing editor of The American Conservative.