⇩ Use your ears. Click below to hear this post.
Jonah Goldberg has allegedly written a brilliant book. His latest effort, The Suicide of the West, which borrows its title from a 1964 book by the conservative political theorist James Burnham, is a long meditation on how “the rebirth of tribalism, populism, nationalism, and identity politics is destroying American democracy.” So far, it has received effusive praise from the center-right media. David Brooks of the New York Times opinion page labeled it “epic and debate-shifting,” while National Affairs’ Yuval Levin gushed in his review that “more than any book published so far in this century,” Suicide of the West “deserves to be called a conservative classic.” A somewhat more reserved Adam Keiper, writing in The Weekly Standard, called it “big, baggy, sometimes frustrating, and often brilliant.” With the conservative Establishment currently under siege, is this the book to drive out the barbarian hordes?
Goldberg, a senior editor at National Review and the Asness Chair of Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute, is, even in these desperate times, an odd candidate for conservative intellectual hero. Although a prominent Never Trump-er during the 2016 primary campaign and a mainstay of the D.C. writing-speaking-moderating circuit, Goldberg’s main specialty has always been owning the libs. His first effort, 2008’s Liberal Fascism, was a long “Dems are the real racists” troll in which Goldberg argued, absurdly, that fascism was left-wing because of its collective and utopian elements — a sleight of hand that relied on defining “right wing” as “classically liberal” and “collectivism” as inherently leftist. (As David Neiwert wrote in Prospect at the time, perhaps the defining feature of fascism is its anti-liberalism, making the book’s title roughly as coherent as “Ptolemaic quantum theory.”) Goldberg’s second book, 2012’s The Tyranny of Clichés, was a more modest turkey shoot in which he excoriated liberals for the overuse of hackneyed phrases such as “the right side of history” and “diversity is our strength.” Now, in The Suicide of the West, an older, more circumspect Goldberg, having spent more than a decade arguing that liberals are mindless crypto-fascists, is here to warn us that incautious rhetoric is tearing the country apart.
Suicide of the West is a long book, but its argument is rather simple. All of the good things we enjoy in the West today (high living standards, long life expectancies, a reasonable degree of social and political freedom) are the products of capitalism and liberalism, the combined triumph of which Goldberg refers to as “the Miracle.” The Miracle is mysterious — an “unplanned and glorious accident” — and profoundly unnatural, in two senses. First, it is relatively recent — for most of human history, people lived in tribes of hunter-gatherers, and, after that, in large agrarian states in which life for the vast majority was hellish and brief. The Miracle, therefore, cannot be a product of human nature. Second, modern societies, and especially liberal ones, tend to bracket out the questions of individual and collective meaning that, in previous societies, were fully integrated into everyday life. As a result, many modern people feel out of place, or alienated, and wish to reorganize society in order to revive a subjective feeling of wholeness they believe to have existed in the past — an impulse that Golberg calls “romanticism” and that, in his view, explains everything from socialism to Trumpian populism. (Three times in the book, Goldberg refers to romanticism as a “yawp”; twice it is modified by “primal,” once by “childish.”)
Because the Miracle is unnatural, it will tend to decay absent our continued efforts to preserve and defend it. And although Goldberg repeatedly insists that it is impossible to know what exactly caused the Miracle, he follows economist Deirdre McCloskey in attributing it mostly to (Goldberg’s paraphrase) “words and ideas” — that is, to the spread, in early modern Europe, of bourgeois notions of property, individual rights and freedoms, and the beneficence of the market and of innovation, all of which were written into the American Constitution. Since the whole edifice of the modern world rests on the foundation of these good words and ideas, the greatest threat to it, and the specific form that decay takes in our society, is bad words and ideas — namely, ingratitude toward the Miracle, usually in the form of romanticism peddled by some resentful intellectual or, more recently, Trump. The only way to halt civilizational decline, then, is to fight bad ideas with good ones, presumably by writing books like The Suicide of the West.
Laid out in this way, it’s not a crazy argument, if not a particularly profound one either. It is true, for instance, that it’s easy for people who grow up in relative wealth and comfort to take those things for granted or even to resent their benefactors; that capitalism, whatever its flaws, is the reason I’m not an illiterate sheep farmer in the Scottish Highlands; and that the romantic impulse to overcome alienation, when applied to politics, has inspired some of the worst disasters in modern history, fascism and communism among them. And although his emphasis on the generative power of “words and ideas” can make Goldberg sound a bit like a Lacanian who wandered off the reservation, it’s a simplified version of a real argument made at length by respectable scholars like McCloskey. So why is this book so maddening?
Partly, no doubt, it’s the style. In a scathing review of The Tyranny of Clichés, Alex Pareene noted that Goldberg is “always careful never to actually stake out a controversial position,” burying anything resembling an assertion in so many layers of caveats and “to-be-sure”s that pinning down his actual position can be like trying to nail an egg yolk into drywall. In sections of The Suicide of the West, this tic borders on self-parody. Goldberg begins his chapter on why capitalism first emerged in England by stating flat-out that “no one really knows” before sketching Daniel Hannan’s argument attributing it to the peculiarities of English culture. There is “a great deal to recommend this theory of the case,” Goldberg says, but “it is almost impossible to to know for sure why it happened.” Hannan “might overstate” his point, “but the core truth remains.” After summarizing Hannan’s theory about the English roots of American liberty, Goldberg asks to “claw it back — at least somewhat,” accusing Hannan of producing a “version of the Whig interpretation of history.” Lest we take that for some sort of conclusion, he backtracks again: “None of this is to say that Hannan — a friend of mine — is wrong.” On the question of whether Christianity is the source of modern ideas about liberty, Goldberg is refreshingly concise: “Again, maybe. Then again, maybe not. It is quite simply impossible to know.”
The Suicide of the West goes on like this at great length (it’s way too long), with Goldberg surveying stacks of research and then throwing up his hands to say that the authors might be onto something, but then again maybe not, but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong, either, because these things are complicated, and did I mention that so-and-so is a friend of mine? In this sense, Keiper is half-right to claim that The Suicide of the West “synthesizes the research and theories of dozens of sociologists, historians, and economists.” Goldberg certainly mentions the work of dozens of scholars. But “synthesizes” implies at least some effort to combine disparate elements into a coherent whole, whereas Goldberg has a habit of presenting them as anecdotes that may or may not have any relation to reality, his argument, or what comes directly before and after them on the page. Whole chapters, such as the one on pop culture, feel like they could have been cut entirely. And when he does attempt a synthesis, his method is to restate his sources’ conclusions in terms so devoid of definite content that the reader can barely object when they’re run together with other arguments saying the opposite. For instance, he cites work showing that a pluralism of institutions was a key component in the emergence of capitalism and liberalism, which would seem to detract from the notion that it was words, ideas, and stories that did the trick. Not a problem, because “an institution isn’t a building or an organization; it’s a rule. But before it was a rule, it was a story.”
But my main frustration with the book was less with how absurd I found some aspects of it and more with how mind-numbingly boring I found the rest. Goldberg, to his credit, has toned down the partisan snark of his previous books. He sneaks in gratuitous digs at the usual suspects (college professors, unions, federal bureaucrats) and uses the term “romanticism” — which he defines as inherently reactionary — to classify any conceivable dissatisfaction with capitalist society, allowing him to insinuate that Deweyite Progressives, New Deal liberals, and Bernie Sanders populists are all reactionaries in disguise. But these potshots are relatively few and far between, and the bulk of The Suicide of the West is taken up by lengthy, heavily caveated explainers of center-right boilerplate — Burke’s “little platoons,” Tocqueville and the importance of civil society, Locke vs. Rousseau, the genius of the Founding Fathers, and Schumpeter and the wonders of creative destruction, all of which take their place alongside newer clichés such as the crisis of men without work and the specter of tribalism. To the extent that Trumpism even makes an appearance, it is only for Goldberg to say that, lamentably, many of America’s formerly stalwart, constitutionalist conservatives have been goaded by left-wing identity politics into adopting a form of romantic reaction all their own. America has a fever, and the only prescription is more Tocqueville.
Goldberg does, in fact, have a real talent for presenting this stuff for a general audience — his glosses are generally cogent and get the main point across, and readers more forgiving than I of his various Goldbergisms may find his summaries useful. But this is supposed to be a big book about big ideas, from a man who claims that one of the bedrock principles of conservatism is that “ideas matter.” Which gets to the heart of the problem with Goldberg’s particular style of Beltway conservatism and why it is in such crisis today. The Suicide of the West is a book that can only be taken seriously by people for whom ideas matter less than the idea of ideas mattering; that is, for whom intellectualism is an exercise in branding and PR. Either Goldberg is wrong that ideas matter to conservatives, in which case his book has a real chance at becoming a classic. Or he’s right, in which case it will be taken for what it is: dull, shallow, and a waste of intelligent readers’ time.