What’s bad for the gavel is good for the pen. The Republican Party is in the midst of a cataclysmic transformation. But all the political turmoil is creating a burst of intellectual creativity on the right.
Young, fresh writers are bursting on the scene: Sohrab Ahmari, Helen Andrews, Charles Cooke, Mollie Hemingway, Jason Willick, Michael Brendan Dougherty, Gracy Olmstead, James Poulos, Oren Cass, Matthew Schmitz and many others.
Suddenly fundamental issues, like the values of the liberal democratic order itself, are up for debate. Some conservatives are laying down comprehensive critiques of the way our society is organized. Modern liberal capitalism is too soulless, they say, too atomizing, too destructive of basic institutions like family, faith and village that give life meaning. Liberal individualism doesn’t produce the sort of virtuous, self-restrained people that are required to sustain it.
Other conservatives are rising to defend that order, including National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, who later this month comes out with his epic and debate-shifting book, “Suicide of the West.”
Goldberg points out that for eons human beings were semi-hairless upright apes clumped in tribes and fighting for food. But about 300 years ago something that he calls “the Miracle” happened. It was a shift in attitude. For thousands of years, societies divided people into permanent categories of race or caste. But, Goldberg writes, “the Miracle ushered in a philosophy that says each person is to be judged and respected on account of their own merits, not the class or caste of their ancestors.”
That belief, championed by John Locke, or a story we tell about Locke, paved the way for human equality, pluralism, democracy, capitalism and the idea that a person can have a plurality of identities and a society can contain a plurality of moral creeds.
It also proved to be the goose that laid the golden egg. Economic growth exploded. The American founding asserted that Lockean ideas are universal. And nothing had ever succeeded like America. Between 1860 and 1900 alone, America’s population doubled and its wealth grew fivefold.
But we have stopped teaching about the Miracle, Goldberg says, and stopped feeling grateful for it.
Tribalism was always there, lurking under the surface. It returns now as identity politics, which is reactionary reversion to the pre-modern world. Identity politics takes individual merit out of the moral center of our system and asserts that group is, Goldberg says, “an immutable category, a permanent tribe.” Identity politics warriors claim they are fighting for social justice, but really it’s just the same old thing, Goldberg argues, a mass mobilization to gain power for the tribe.
Earlier movements wanted America to live up to its ideals. Today’s identitarians doubt the liberal project itself.
Identity politics gained traction on the left, but now the Trumpian right has decided to fight fire with fire. Populism is a form of identity politics because it’s based on in-group/out-group distinctions. It says anybody who doesn’t think or look like us is not a true American.
This tribal mentality is tearing the civic fabric and creates a war of what Goldberg thinks of as “ecstatic schadenfreude” – the exaltation people feel when tribal foes are brought down.
I love the way Goldberg provocatively tells his story, but I partially disagree with it. The central tension in his book is between Locke, who emerges as a rational, calm, pipe-smoking economist, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who emerges as a wild-haired, passionately resentful rock star. The liberal order emerges from the individualism of Locke and is threatened by group consciousness and romantic resentments of Rousseau.
But America is both rational and romantic, both Locke and Rousseau. We have a rationalist constitution, but we have a shared national faith and are an emotional community, rooted in our land, inspired by our history, warmed by the hope of our common future.
The core problem today is not tribalism. It’s excessive individualism, which has eaten away at our uniting faith and damaged our relationships with one another. Excessive individualism has left us distrustful and alone – naked Lockeans. When people are naked and alone they revert to tribe. Tribalism is the end product of excessive individualism.
Goldberg is suspicious of nationalism and has a tendency to think that any effort to build a national community puts you on the express lanes on the road to serfdom.
His conservatism is missing the bonding sentiments of Edmund Burke, and the idea that the little platoon of the family is nestled in the emotional platoon of the neighborhood and the emotional platoon of the nation. Tribalism is not the only way to form a group; there’s also the redeeming and forgiving love of community, and a shared national faith. Goldberg misses the way Hamilton, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt built a national community that didn’t crush local communities but rather reinforced them.
Goldberg is right to fight tribalism on the left and the right. But you can’t reweave a fragmented nation by appealing just to Lockean individualism. Gratitude is too weak a glue to hold a diverse nation together. Renewal will come through the communitarians on the right and the left, who seek ways to improve relationships on a household, local and national level.