Jonah Goldberg is worried about the state of the nation. In his new book, Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy (Crown Forum), he makes the case that the liberal democratic project is not only in danger—it has become a danger to itself.
The United States, Goldberg argues, has forgotten or rejected its core values, allowing its institutions to decay. The result is a nation that no longer has a coherent self-image, a culture that no longer knows what it lives for. "I like getting rich really fast, and I want to make the world get richer really fast," he says. "But the violence that does to established institutions and customs and norms sets a lot of people adrift."
A stalwart of modern conservative political journalism, Goldberg is a longtime editor at National Review, where he helped launch the magazine's online presence. He also currently writes a column for the Los Angeles Times and serves as a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. And he's the best-selling author of two previous books, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning and The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas.
Like both of those titles, Suicide of the West blends history and philosophy with pop-culture references; as always, Goldberg's deep despair is leavened with a lively wit. In June, he spoke with Reason's Nick Gillespie about how and when America lost its way, why tribalism is the culprit, what role Donald Trump plays in the death of the West—and why Goldberg has become friendlier to libertarianism over the course of his career.
Reason: In Suicide of the West, you talk about "the miracle." Describe what you mean by that.
Goldberg: When something hugely providential and wonderful happens that you can't explain, we call it a miracle. For 250,000 years, the average human being, everywhere in the world, lived on about $3 a day or less. Then, once and only once in all of human history, it starts to change. There's unbelievable consensus about this from the hard left to the hard right. Everyone sort of agrees on those numbers to one extent or another. When it comes to the question of why it happened, all consensus breaks down.
But it only happened once, at least in a sustained way. And I think what causes the miracle isn't some specific public policy or anything like that. It's words. It's language. It's the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. This is sort of the Deirdre McCloskey thesis: For thousands of years in Western Europe, innovation was considered a sin, the sin of questioning the established order. Then all of a sudden [you get] this Lockean idea that the fruits of our labors belong to us, that if you can build a better mousetrap, you should reap the rewards of that. And it has this explosive effect that spreads out across the world. It's unnatural.
If it were natural, if this were how human beings just automatically self-organize into prosperous communities of rule of law and individual autonomy, it would have occurred a little earlier in the evolutionary record than 250,000 years after we split off from Neanderthals.
What is the essential insight needed to preserve the miracle? And when you talk about the death of the West, is it really suicide, or is it being imposed on us?
The working title for the book for a couple years was The Tribe of Liberty, and the basic argument was that we need to rekindle a sort of tribal commitment to the institutions of liberty. There are institutions in the economic sense of rules, but also physical organizations, groups, traditions, that civilize us and make us respect and admire and want to preserve liberty. And those things are often taught to us in a prerational way, right? They're taught to us when we're born into any family that has a commitment to certain ideas. But we have to be taught those things.
It's weird we have to be taught to hold a prerational identity. But it's true. One of the reasons we were able to get rich is that [people were willing to commit] to an order where they individually may not be a winner.
Hannah Arendt says, "Every generation, Western civilization is invaded by barbarians. We call them children." We come with all sorts of factory preloaded software in us. But that software is unchanging over millennia, for the most part. A baby born in the Viking age transported to today, you raise it in a nice family in New Rochelle and it becomes an orthodontist.
One of the things that binds lots of Burkeans and libertarians is this idea that capitalism depends upon values that it cannot create and cannot restore once lost.
One huge influence on me is Friedrich Hayek's The Fatal Conceit, where he has the microcosm and the macrocosm. The microcosm is the world of intimate relationships. The world, first of all, of family, but also friendships, community. The rules there are not market rules. As I often say, in my family I'm a communist. If you have two kids and one kid is really talented and the other kid really isn't, you don't say, well, he doesn't get the operation [he needs to survive], right? Within the family it really is "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need."
What Hayek argues is that it's the microcosm that generates the values—the respect for human rights, the respect for human dignity, the respect for the Golden Rule—all of these sorts of yeasty cultural ideas that make the macrocosm of the extended order of liberty work. The extended order of liberty is the world of contracts, of consumers, of rule of law. It lowers the threshold to dealing with strangers. Because in the state of nature, the way you deal with a stranger is you hit them over the head with a rock, while in the modern world the way we deal with strangers is we try to sell them rocks.
So part of my argument is that every kind of totalitarian regime or authoritarian regime is trying to take the values of the microcosm and apply them to the macrocosm. Nazism is tribalism for one race; fascism is tribalism for one country; communism is tribalism for one class. It's trying to take those notions of social solidarity and intimacy from the microcosm and apply them to the macrocosm, and when you do that, you destroy liberty and the rule of law.
However, when you take the logic of the macrocosm and you apply it to the microcosm, you destroy the engines of value generation that make society work. If you tried to turn a family into a business, it would ruin the family. And if you tried to make a country of 310 million people operate as if the president were our father or our mother, it would ruin everything that Reason stands for.
"In the state of nature, the way you deal with a stranger is you hit them over the head with a rock. In the modern world the way we deal with strangers is we try to sell them rocks."
To when do you date the beginning of the decline? Because this is a slow-motion suicide.
Ronald Reagan said, "Every generation, we're only one generation away from tyranny," because we don't have an inherent love for liberty in our blood. We have to be taught it. So we've had these struggles many times in our past.
One of the things I focus on—and it's most acute in higher education, but watch virtually any frickin' award show from out of Hollywood and you find it there too, and you find it in mainstream journalism—is this desire to define all of American history by its sins. And I absolutely want to teach that stuff. About slavery, about the bad things that came with Christopher Columbus, about what we did to the Indians.
You're not saying we have to teach that Christopher Columbus was the greatest guy in the world.
No. Absolutely not. But a thing that drives me absolutely crazy is our tendency to compare events in the past against an ideal in the future. The American Founding has all sorts of problems with it, but it was better than anything that came before it. Yet we want to hold up the gold standard of, not even today, but an ideal sometime in the Utopian future against what they were talking about in 1776.
Let's remember that the ideas that emerged from the miracle worked. This bourgeois, mercantile, merchant-class ideology made poor people richer. It also made rich people richer, but if you're of a progressive mindset that says the thing you should be concerned about is the status of poor people, this is the only economic system that has actually made poor people richer. We should recognize that.
But one of the great and glorious things about the American Revolution and the Constitutional Convention is that they wrote this shit down and locked us into it. And because of the cultural stock of the population at the American Founding and throughout much of the 19th century, it got instantiated and strengthened in our institutions.
I would say that this starts to unravel not in the 1960s, not in the 1950s, but really with the rise of the Progressive Era, where you get all of these major intellectuals who were taught from the historicist school in Germany that come to the United States, and they think everything is relative. They completely reject the views of the Austrian school and all that stuff.
Those sorts of ideas percolate along and start taking over the universities, and then the materialist [critique] comes in after World War II, when we get really rich really fast.
I like getting rich really fast, and I want to make the world get richer really fast. But the violence that does to established institutions and customs and norms sets a lot of people adrift, and you get a mass affluent class of people, or what Schumpeter calls the "new class," who are incentivized to pee on America from a great height and to pee on capitalism from a great height. They're the priests who want to use the only weapons they have, which are words and concepts, to undermine the system and argue for something that empowers them. So you get robber barons who have lawyers for kids, and the lawyers have spoken-word poets for kids.
In a way, the suicide of the West is a luxury good, right? We don't have to worry about food. We don't have to worry about next week's budget. We're fat and happy, and we start taking for granted the institutions that got us here.
What we're witnessing because of this level of mass affluence is the ruling classes of the world uniting. Literally, that's what cosmopolitanism means. You get these people, the globalist class, who have more sense of social connection with somebody across the Atlantic who shares their status than they do with the person who cleans their yard.
How did we get to a world where rich people are saying that former factory workers in upper Wisconsin are being sold a bill of goods by globalists? What's going on that the elites are the most tribal now?
Part of the reason I think we're in the shitty position that we're in is that our elites will not preach what they practice. Rich people tend to live pretty bourgeois lives. Most successful people in this country wait till they get as much education as they can, then they get married, then they have kids, and it turns out if you follow that basic bourgeois kind of lifestyle, you're going to be OK. The economic gains from marriage are in some cases greater than and often equal to the gains from going to college, but it's part of the gestalt of the new elite class not to tell people to get married. They love talking about going to college, but they feel like it's too judgy to say maybe you should get married. I think this is one of the best examples of how our elites are contemptuous of the values that got them rich. They're terrified of preaching them to other people.
National Review came out against Trump during the campaign, despite the fact that he was advocating some policies the magazine has been preaching for decades. He won anyway. Is Trump actually what we've been asking for all along?
My position has long been that Trump is not the author of all of our problems—he's a symptom of our problems—but he's making a lot of those problems much worse.
I think what Trump has done is break the blood-brain barrier between politics and entertainment in a way that will not be repaired for a very long time. I was saying in 2016 as late as July that if Tom Hanks or Oprah or one of those guys parachuted in, they could have probably won the election, because everyone hated Hillary and everyone hated Trump. Both parties managed to nominate the one candidate that had a chance of losing to the other. It was a choice between two different crap sandwiches on different kinds of bread.
What Trump has proved is that you can have a completely thumbless grasp on the Constitution, you can encourage members at your rallies to commit violence against people, you can say the most despicable things, so long as you're entertaining.
"My position has long been that Trump is not the author of all our problems—he's a symptom of our problems—but he's making a lot of those problems much worse."
How do we revive our institutions or create new ones that are actually worthy of our trust and confidence? If you start from 1968, the government has only been lying to us more and more: Vietnam, surveillance, etc. Or else it's incompetent. How do we reinvest these institutions with something like trust and confidence?
There's not a lot of policy prescription in the book, but one of the things I think screams out from it is just simply this idea of pushing as much power as possible down to the most local level. I think some of the paranoia about globalists is bullshit; I think some of it is totally fair; and I think some of it is wrong but understandable. You have to take the complaints on a case-by-case basis. But one thing that's indisputable is there's a widespread view that either Washington or some other powers that be are making too many decisions about our lives. If one community wants to ban stinky cheese, let them. Why does the [Food and Drug Administration] have to do it?
If you push power down to the most local level possible, one of the benefits you get is that people know who the powers that be are. They know their names.…You're still gonna have culture war fights, but the winners have to look the losers in the eye the next day. That breeds a certain sense of humility; it breeds a certain sense of live to fight another day. Instead, what we have is these idiotic national coalitions that want to impose one way of living on the entire country.
But does the average Trump voter want to take responsibility for his own life?
Look, I have no problem giving the people their fair share of blame. The Democrats are very good at this, and they've been doing it for far longer—this promise that the government is there to love and take care of you. That's the "Life of Julia" bullshit. That's the opening sentence from the Democratic convention in 2012, which said, "The government is the one thing we all belong to," which is creepy. That's the "politics of meaning" stuff that Hillary Clinton used to talk about.
What happens when you feel powerless, on your own, alienated in a corner of suburban America or in the inner city, where you don't have many social connections? You start looking to Washington. That "government is the one thing we all belong to" line, I'm sure, was focus-grouped to death. There are an enormous number of people who feel like they want to belong to something.
Say we push power down to the lowest level possible. That's all well and good. But how does that play out in a way that doesn't immediately turn to the worst kinds of tribal instincts that you document in the book and that you say are destroying America? What is the positive vision where people have local belonging but also understand that they're part of something larger and more diverse?
One of the great things about the miracle of liberal democratic capitalism is it allows us to have a multitude of identities. We have allegiances to different institutions, but they don't wholly define us, and they allow us to exit one and go into another, try on one, leave that one.
The problem with the identity politics mindset is it says, "I can reduce someone to a singular thing." And when you do that, you sort of flip the switch of the tribal mind to "anybody who isn't me is the enemy." One of the reasons I think this identity politics mindset, which breaks my heart, is getting more and more popular on the right and has been instantiated on the left for a very long time is that we are teaching people that they can't assimilate, that they can't break out of the iron cage of their identity.
Are you going to come out as a libertarian right now? Because what you're saying is so fundamentally libertarian: You now are talking about overlapping identities, a movement toward freedom and self-definition, and mongrelization vs. purity.
I will not. Not right now. Look, William F. Buckley wrote a book subtitled Reflections of a Libertarian Journalist. There are many things which I am a libertarian on, and there are some things which I am a conservative on. I've argued for 25 years that no meeting of policy makers should ever gather or consider a question without a libertarian in the room. Libertarians will often be wrong. But the libertarian will always ask as the first question, "Should we do anything at all?" You get so much groupthink in policy making shops where they just assume that of course we've got to do something. The libertarian says, "Wait a second. Maybe the system itself can fix this." That's also a very conservative position. I've always thought fusionist conservatism was a cousin of the libertarians.
I wrote a piece for National Review, "Who Lost the Libertarians?" As I started thinking about it and reading about it, I decided the [prevailing] frames are completely wrong. In reality, the libertarians are a much older tradition than the conservatives, and modern American conservatism is arguably the youngest significant ideological phenomenon in American politics. Socialism is much older, obviously. Libertarianism goes back to Spencer. Meanwhile, modern American conservatism basically begins after World War II. Even the Old Right doesn't look a lot like modern conservatism or even modern libertarianism.
I feel like we've made some real headway. Libertarians always used to be considered the punk younger brother of conservatives, and now we're the cousin, and maybe even the forefather.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and style. For a video version, visit reason.com.
Photo Credit: Steven Biver