by Josh Wester
In his famous Gettysburg Address, President Abraham Lincoln said the Civil War was a conflict that would test “whether a nation conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could long endure. More than 150 years later, we’re once again seeking the answer to that question.
It’s no secret that American society is polarized and fractured. As we’ve moved further right and left, it seems many have lost sight of the ties that bind—those indispensable elements that created and shaped our common life. And all this leads to a single question: what kind of future awaits an increasingly fragmented society?
Enter Jonah Goldberg, who in his latest book, Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy, attempts to wake us from our stupor in hopes of averting disaster. Goldberg—senior editor at National Review, fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, syndicated columnist, and frequent Fox News pundit—is one of America’s leading conservative intellectuals and a keen observer of politics and culture.
In the book, he musters wit and wisdom to make the case that our current trajectory is nothing short of an existential threat to the survival of Western society and that only a fundamental course correction might save us.
Goldberg writes in defense of the achievements of the West. Until the 18th century, he argues, poverty was a nearly universal human experience. But over the last 300 years, humanity has taken a “quantum leap out of its natural environment of poverty,” leaving a majority of people in the Western world to contend with abundance instead of survival (7). Goldberg credits this radical reversal of fortune to what he calls “the Miracle.”
Goldberg claims the Miracle was the product of ideas. Rooted in the Enlightenment, specifically the revolutionary thought of English philosopher John Locke, the Miracle is in essence “an attitude, expressed in new ideas and the rhetoric that accompanies them” (106). Thus, as Locke’s ideas—centered on the sovereignty of the individual and the natural rights of man—began to work their way into popular sentiment, a radical shift took place in the way that “humans thought about the world and their place in it” (8).
Locke’s theories ultimately formed the basis of classical liberalism. And liberalism, Goldberg posits, in combination with free-market capitalism, created the Miracle. Indeed, since the Enlightenment, the ascendance of liberalism—with its focus on natural rights and limited government—and the rise of capitalism transformed the Western world, bringing about the single greatest period of human progress, innovation, and achievement in history.
From the outset, Goldberg’s concern is clear. The Miracle created the modern West. The United States of America is the Miracle’s most visible triumph (11). And all of it is in peril.
Suicide of the West is provocative and formidable, a sweeping three-part narrative of the development of contemporary American culture and what ails it. Goldberg begins by introducing the Miracle and offering his take on the destructive power of human nature. In part two, he discusses the makings of modern America, tackling the formation and history of capitalism and liberal democracy. And in the final section, he turns his attention to threats to the Miracle’s survival, including progressivism, tribalism, and nationalism.
Goldberg is at his best when he speaks of human nature. He understands the innate moral sense every person possesses (Rom. 2:15). He discerns the weaknesses of our fallen state (e.g., pride and greed). He recognizes our inclinations toward tribalism are more than learned behaviors but exist at the level of instinct. Most importantly, Goldberg grasps humanity’s quest for meaning—our compulsory habit of imbuing the world around us with “significance beyond the rational and material” (44).
He believes strongly in the power of ideas; he views civilization as the “collection of stories we tell ourselves” (88). And his argument that the state of our common life is largely determined by these stories is substantially on target. It’s true the West has taken shape against the backdrop of clashing ideas (for example, Locke vs. Rousseau, capitalism vs. Marxism), and that for most of our history, Americans have embraced the ideas behind the Miracle. But now it appears the tide has turned.
The book’s subtitle, How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy, names the movements and ideas that threaten the Miracle. In the book’s final section, Goldberg delivers a devastating critique of each. But ultimately, he offers a more basic explanation for the Miracle’s predicament: ingratitude. We have simply failed to appreciate the Miracle. Indifferent to its unparalleled achievement, we’re willfully allowing it to slip into the abyss.
The book begins with a stunning introduction: “There is no God in this book,” Goldberg writes (3). For the sake of argument, he jettisons any pretense of religious belief and seeks to persuade readers purely on the basis of “facts grounded in reason and decency.” But as he makes his case, it’s clear time and again that Goldberg has saddled himself with an unbearable burden.
In constructing his argument, his core assumption is that “it is incumbent upon all of us to fight for a better society, to defend the hard-learned lessons of human history, and to be grateful for what we have accomplished” (6). As a Christian whose worldview is tethered to the Bible, I’m able to affirm that statement. But on what basis could others affirm it? The assertion certainly fails in Darwinian terms and, absent any theological moorings, is left floating in thin air.
Additionally, Goldberg’s functional atheism plagues his defense of the Miracle. He lays much of the blame for society’s ills at the feet of Romanticism, not only holding Romanticism responsible for our indifference toward the Miracle but also asserting the two are fundamentally incompatible. Thus, even as he rightly exposes the real problems with our attachment to Romanticism—for instance, its promotion of the primacy of feelings or excessive idealism—he fails to recognize that humanity’s “romantic” quest for significance isn’t a liability. He claims “we cannot improve upon the core assumptions of the Miracle” (15). But on this point the Miracle, at least in Goldberg’s reckoning, is fundamentally in conflict with God’s good design of human beings, which were created with an intrinsic longing for meaning and transcendence.
Such is the book’s devastating flaw. On these points and many others, including Goldberg’s take on subjects such as social justice and inequality, his book would’ve been strengthened with a different approach.
Appreciating the Miracle requires us to view the present through the lens of the past. But we can’t stay stuck in the past; this appreciation needs to be passed on to future generations. Goldberg is correct; the Miracle is worthy of preservation, and we must do our part to tell its story.
In 1838, long before he was a presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech about the future of political institutions in the United States. In that speech, he uttered these words:
At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.
Goldberg’s book is aptly named. Should the Miracle soon meet its end, its death shall come by suicide.