SUICIDE OF THE WEST: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism
and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy
by Jonah Goldberg
Crown Forum, New York
Hardcover: 464 pages
Reviewed by Paul Collits
Books on the decline of the West have been all the rage of late. But the heritage of the genre goes back much further. Indeed, there was another book called Suicide of the West, written by James Burnham, first published in 1964, and re-released in 2014 with a foreword by National Review’s John O’Sullivan and an introduction by New Criterion’s Roger Kimball.
We could go back around a century, to Oswald Spengler’s hugely successful and influential Decline of the West, published in 1918. Spengler really set up the whole genre, and, it has been argued, set the scene for the legendary interpreter of world history, Arnold Toynbee.
One could even mention here Edward Gibbon’s famous six-volume tome, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–89), as the progenitor of the genre.
Typically, recent versions of the genre point to the deadly combination twin forces driving the West’s decline, one exogenous and the other endogenous – the colonialist march of Islam in all of its dimensions (the outside threat), and the enervating internal collapse of Judeo-Christian traditions and, just as importantly, the move away from having children (the internal threat). The books of widely read columnist Mark Steyn, especially America Alone and After America, are standout examples of the genre.
There are many others. American paleoconservative and former Presidential candidate (in 1996) Pat Buchanan had a crack in 2002 with his The Death of the West. Dambisa Moyo thinks the battle is already over – her contribution in 2011 was entitled How the West Was Lost, past tense and all. Mary Eberstadt takes a variant approach in her declinist book, How the West Really Lost God.
The opposite of the declinist form of writing history is what the early 20th-century historian Herbert Butterfield termed the “Whig version of history”, which catalogues endless progress and improvement in the human condition, in the West in particular. Many of the modern successors of Whig optimism belong to the free market conservatism or economic libertarianism of writers such as Virginia Postrel and Matt Ridley, often pointing out the triumphs of innovation and of capitalism.
Typically their weapons are aimed at those contemporary declinists from central casting, the eco-warrior greenies who think the world is doomed environmentally rather than culturally and morally. The free-market optimists normally hang out at journals like Reason and organisations like the American Enterprise Institute.
There has even been a book about declinism – by the excellent historian, Arthur Herman – The Idea of Decline in Western History. And what a book that is. But that is another story.
So, into this well-worn genre strides Jonah Goldberg, until recently a senior editor at National Review, America’s mainstream conservative journal of choice. (Coincidentally, Burnham, author of the 1964 Suicide of the West, was also in his later career an editor and columnist at Bill Buckley’s then very young magazine. Indeed Burnham was by way of a mentor to the sainted Buckley, and had much influence at the magazine until his death in 1987.)
Goldberg is a serious and persistent presence on the American right, and has been for many years. He continues as a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and his syndicated weekly columns are read nationally. Anyone familiar with Goldberg’s writing will know that he is engaging, light of touch and not without humour. He has the gift, as both a writer and a speaker.
Goldberg’s book is not his first. In 2008 he published a best seller, Liberal Fascism, and in 2012 he followed up with The Tyranny of Clichés, a second whack at the left in which he confirmed his right-wing credentials.
Goldberg has also been labelled a neo-conservative for his vigorous support of various American foreign policy interventions, though he is by no means the hawk that others are. He is, though, in the post-2016 period of upheaval for the American right, a standout “Never Trumper”. So, what to expect from his latest book?
Though a journalist by trade, Goldberg’s book carries considerable intellectual heft, weighing in at around 450 pages, reflecting deep and broad scholarship and a fusion of historical, political and cultural analysis, and praised by such luminaries as Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs and author himself of the widely praised The Fractured Republic.
Levin states: “More than any book published so far in this century, it deserves to be called a conservative classic.”
David Brooks of The New York Times – the token conservative of sorts there – called the book “epic and debate shifting”. Neocon John Podhoretz described it as “the book of the years”. Very high praise indeed. Is it warranted, though? My answer is, with much respect for Jonah Goldberg, no. Not a conservative classic. Not debate shifting.
The book is unusual for a work with such a declinist title. It is generally optimistic, not pessimistic. It is, certainly, an example of what one critic has called “modernity boosterism”. Goldberg is undoubtedly an Enlightenment booster, as well. As a free market conservative and limited government man, Goldberg (rightly) extols the virtues of capitalism as a wealth creation machine, noting – as many others have before – the impact then and since of the Industrial Revolution. He refers to “the miracle” – the hockey stick of human development – that tilted upwards dramatically three hundred years ago, after millennia of stagnant economic performance.
Goldberg does not seek to create his own version of why the miracle occurred where and when it did. Others, both economists and historians, like Joel Mokyr, Deirdre McCloskey and Fernand Braudel, have charted the course of economic progress in their own, more original, contributions. Goldberg simply follows McCloskey – no bad thing, as McCloskey’s massive three-volume work on the subject is both scholarly and persuasive. McCloskey pitches for a shift in culture, not merely new ideas, and a growing bourgeois cultural embrace of the acceptability of innovation that generates new wealth.
As Alberto Mingardi notes: “In a nutshell, her thesis is that it was culture which needed to change so the economy eventually could. Wealth could be created on a grander extent than ever, but only as soon as wealth creation was no longer deemed a filthy purpose.”
Goldberg, like McCloskey, sees that the economic growth that underpins human material advancement is both precious and, in human historical terms, highly unusual. For most of our history, we just got by. For these reasons, argues Goldberg, we should understand the importance of freedom and capitalism (liberal democracy), value it, and never cease to protect it, at all costs. Losing it is the risk that Goldberg sees, the risk of Western suicide.
The second stream of Goldberg’s thought and thesis relates to the primacy of the individual. For Goldberg, the Lockean political revolution centred on natural rights and the role of government – both in relation to the individual as the holder of natural rights. The Lockean revolution in political philosophy signalled a fundamental shift in attitudes as well.
The Enlightenment period as a whole brought individual self-awareness, the thirst for rights, the notion of the sovereign individual, and the idea that rights did not come from government. All are central to the American constitutional experiment and central to the notion of American exceptionalism. Again, Goldberg here is merely restating, albeit in eloquent and well-researched fashion, some core elements of right-of-centre American thinking.
Goldberg’s argument, outlined as many American books are in its lengthy subtitle, is not quite in the same vein as many of the other contributions to American conservative thought. He has in his sights as threats to Western liberal democracy, not just that familiar enemy of the right, progressivist identity politics, but also “populism” and “nationalism”. The latter two are much-debated recent political phenomena exemplified by the rise of Trump, Britain’s Brexit, and developments that push back against elites in many other jurisdictions besides.
The new push back has been welcomed by many conservatives in Australia and in other countries, of course. But not by Goldberg. Nationalism and populism reek of “tribalism”, which Goldberg sees as the enemy of liberal individualism and therefore the greatest cause of concern for the West.
This tilt to populism, and especially to nationalism, is also exemplified by the publication of what is, in some ways, the anti-Goldberg tome of the times, Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism. Hazony is the creator of the Edmund Burke Foundation and the driving force behind the recent national conservatism conference in the United States that has generated considerable discussion in American conservative circles.
The philosophy of Burke, the father of modern conservatism and the man who emphasised “little platoons” like the family, churches, small employment generating businesses and the local community, rather than the sovereign individual, carries far less weight with Goldberg than does, say, Locke.
A “conservative classic” that mentions Edmund Burke only once in 400-plus pages is a most unusual “conservative classic”, to say the least. Russell Kirk, the father of modern American conservatism, isn’t mentioned at all in the book. Goldberg’s philosophy, evidenced by these absences as much by his tilt towards material progress and the undoubted success of free-market capitalism in creating this, is much more at the libertarian end of the admittedly very broad conservative spectrum.
So, not a conservative classic. Is the book a “classic” of any description? It is certainly an enjoyable, though not a gripping, read. As suggested, it isn’t highly original. As other reviewers have suggested, the title is quite peculiar, given the optimism that lies between the covers.
To me, by focusing on tribalism as a species and naming populism and nationalism as dangerous sub-species, Goldberg misses the main threats to the West, which I agree are many and substantial, and at the same time creates threats that are not really threats at all. To suggest that populism, let alone nationalism, are existential threats to the West beggars belief. They are certainly not in the same ballpark as, say, mass migration from Islamic countries, rampant Islamist terrorism, demographic suicide, the cloying culture of death, worklessness, limp-wristed left-liberalism, cultural decline and moral implosion.
Populism and nationalism have certainly given conservatives in the U.S. and elsewhere pause to think. I can see how a free-market liberal like Goldberg would baulk at Trump’s economic strategies. They certainly are not from the Hayekian playbook on markets and free trade, for example. They offend free-market purity. But threats to liberal democracy they are not.
And Goldberg (of course) is not alone in identifying Trump’s personal flaws and rough-around-the-edges political style. He is not remotely original there, and has nothing much new to say on this subject.
To suggest moral equivalence in terms of threats to liberal democracy between right-of-centre populism on the one hand and leftist identity politics on the other, strikes me as bizarre. The latter characterise – indeed, they drive pervasive political correctness – the aggressive push for homosexual and transgender rights that are so threatening to the traditional family, radical and harmful sex education, the debilitating victim mentality, hedonistic, Maslovian self-worship, and the drive to push Christianity from the public square. These are the things that really ail Western nations, that are the real threat from within.
Yes, there are tribes and identity politics in the West, and they do matter in culture and politics. But some are way more harmful than others. And some are natural, others confected. They are not morally equivalent. And they do not all provide existential danger, to individuals or to individualism. Many might indeed argue that a corrective to rampant individualism is no bad thing in these times, and that a little tribalism of the right kind is merited.
I do admit to a certain lingering bias against tut-tutting, never-Trump conservatives, and this does affect my view of Goldberg’s book. “We the people” have been battered around by the left for so long that we seem simply now prone to take it, to not rouse ourselves to fight back. The optimistic stirrings on the right that we are now seeing follow half a century of being battered by the out-workings of post-modernism, relativism and the sexual revolution.
These stirrings are being driven largely by the emergence of push-back, have-a-go, disruptive politicians like Nigel Farage and Trump, and they far outweigh anything created by those to whom Goldberg’s treatise might appeal – say Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz in the United States, David Cameron in Britain and Scott Morrison in Australia.
Overall, the book isn’t exactly a yawn, but it isn’t a page-turner either. It pieces together some useful and well-researched history. It is indeed broad ranging in its sources. It provides a synthesis of many strands of economics, philosophy and politics. It is good at stating the obvious, and this is disappointing even if it is done engagingly. But a classic the book is not, and even for conservatives – and there are many types of conservatives – it will not necessarily hit the mark. It may even mislead.
What of the comparison between the two Suicides of the West?
Reviewer Daniel McCarthy notes: “Goldberg can fairly be called a liberal conservative, and his Suicide argues for the preservation of a civilisational patrimony inherited from the Enlightenment. This includes economic liberalism (in the “classical” sense); religious and political pluralism; and faith in democracy, properly understood.
“Burnham, by contrast, was an economic nationalist with a Machiavellian understanding of politics that left no room for democratic idealism or any other kind. Where race and colonialism are concerned, Burnham’s Suicide reads in places like a bible for the alt-right. Liberalism, far from being something he wished to conserve, was for Burnham ‘the ideology of Western suicide’ – not the cause but a rationalisation of the West’s waning will to live.”
Quite a contrast, then between the two books of the same name.
McCarthy also notes: “Largely absent from Mr Goldberg’s Suicide, however, is the man from whom its title is borrowed: James Burnham does not appear until more than a hundred pages into the book, and what brief mention he gets does little justice to him. Mr Goldberg makes a common mistake, conflating Burnham’s ‘managerial class’ with what Irving Kristol called ‘the New Class’ – the latter consisting not of Burnham’s masters of technological organisation but of people Burnham dismissed as ‘verbalists’, mere mouthpieces for real power.
“The significance of this misunderstanding is that it leads Mr Goldberg to misjudge the seriousness and depth of Burnham’s diagnosis of what ails capitalism, and this in turn leads Mr Goldberg to be more optimistic than is warranted.”
No book using the title Suicide of the West can avoid being compared/contrasted with another book of the same name. Perhaps this is unfair to Goldberg, and Burnham’s book was written in rather a different age, though only half a century ago. Then, the Soviet Union was the existential threat to America, political correctness was unheard of, the sexual revolution was merely a glint in Alfred Kinsey’s eye, and relativism was yet to set out on its long march through the institutions.
However, the fact that Goldberg appears to have gotten Burnham so wrong, at least for the erudite editor of the conservative journal of record, Modern Age, is significant, and cannot merely be set aside as being of merely side-bar importance.
One final thought. Do we really need another high-level defence of the emergence and wonder of the modern, free economy, with its manifest benefits to individuals and nations? I would think not, but in the age of the millennial socialist, of Jeremy Corbyn and of Bernie Sanders, one might well be forced to agree with Michael Novak, who insisted that the perils of socialism and the benefits of capitalism do indeed need to be explained afresh to each new generation.
Goldberg’s book is a work of considerable research that is less than scholarship, with a core argument that is less than compelling, and perhaps worse, a work that distracts from the West’s most pressing dangers. And for a book billed as a “conservative” classic, a conservative reader might well wonder, reflecting on Goldberg’s adulation of Lockean individualism and of material growth as the greatest of human achievements, why does anyone think this guy is a conservative?
Sir Robert Menzies is reputed to have said of Andrew Peacock’s maiden speech in Parliament: “The member’s speech was both brilliant and original. Unfortunately, the brilliant bits weren’t original and the original bits weren’t brilliant.”
Sadly, much the same can be said of Goldberg, this time around.
Paul Collits is a writer, university lecturer, independent researcher, policy adviser and business mentor. He has worked in regional economic development analysis, research, training, policy and practice for over 25 years.