Suicide of the West

How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy

[Amazon Link]

Jonah Goldberg's long-awaited, endlessly-hyped third book. It's pretty good, but (frankly) my expectations should not have been so elevated.

Jonah's thesis is simple: you and I live in the age of "The Miracle": the hockey-stick upturn of human flourishing, happening in a relative eyeblink of time, compared to the whole of human history. Many have poked around this phenomenon, trying to explain it, while also celebrating it: most notably Deirdre McCloskey. But also Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley, Joseph Henrich, and more.

Jonah gives the credit, plausibly enough, to the great ideas of classical liberalism and free-market capitalism. He argues—also plausibly enough—that the Miracle is … well, miraculous, it's also fragile and fundamentally unnatural: it needs continuing attention and defense, lest it wither and we revert to some slimy dystopia. It's anyone's guess what that would look like, I think, although Brave New World might have some clues. (Jonah's pessimism is probably a necessary counterweight to, say, Steven Pinker's optimism. Although Pinker's not that optimistic either, come to think of it.)

Some harbingers of doom you'll see named in the subtitle: tribalism, populism, nationalism, identity politics. Underlying them all is the Rousseauian (and other flavors) of the anti-liberal, anti-capitalist vision. This vision appeals to our (entirely natural) desires for belonging, "meaning", security, leadership, equality, etc. The no-nonsense, all-business, amoral universe of the marketplace doesn't offer a lot of romance that people crave.

Things are made worse—much worse—by Trump, and his seduction of large swaths of Republicans and formerly-independent conservatives. Arguably, he's made the tribal left-vs.-right warfare worse, and excused a lot of the know-nothing anti-immigrant, anti-trade factions on the right.

It is significant, methinks, that Jonah calls his podcast "The Remnant". This is a very Old Testament reference, what the prophets of the day called the tiny fraction of Israelites that would survive the upcoming catastrophes caused by outside adversaries and internal moral rot.

Jonah mentions a number of times that the book has been drastically cut down from its original manuscript length. Regrettably, I'm not sure this was done well, because it seems (at least to me) that the book is a little unfocused. For example, there's a chapter pointing out the dysfunction of "The Administrative State". Which is fine, but it didn't seem to fit in well with the grander themes of the book. Maybe that's me.

Anyway, recommended, of course.