Over 180 years ago, a 28-year-old Abraham Lincoln reflected on the dangers facing the United States in his Young Man’s Lyceum Address: “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.” His words proved prescient, as a little over 20 years later the country would descend into civil war. A book by conservative writer Jonah Goldberg argues that Lincoln’s words apply again to the current state of America.
Suicide of the West is Goldberg’s latest book in which he catalogs the decline of American democracy. According to Goldberg, the death of the country will not be the result of civil war but the culmination of a steady rot of the ideas and institutions that produced the liberty and prosperity of the West.
The thesis of the book is fairly straightforward. Goldberg begins with the premise that throughout almost all of human history people lived in abysmal conditions until something happened roughly 300 years ago. Goldberg calls this something “the Miracle.” The Miracle is characterized by the emergence of the rule of law, individual rights, and free-market capitalism, all of which sparked the largest increase human flourishing and liberty ever, helping billions rise out of poverty.
In short, the progress of the last 300 years is not natural; it is a detour from the norm of human history.
The bulk of the book is spent describing the origins of the Miracle (better known as classical liberalism), how it took shape in the American context, and how the country is at risk of losing it today. Goldberg details the birth of nation-states, the emergence of capitalism, and the American embodiment of Lockean liberalism as key developments behind the Miracle.
With that in mind, the final part of the book unpacks the threats to classical liberalism that face America today. These threats include the growth of the administrative state and rule by experts, the rise of nationalism and identity politics, and the reemergence of populism.
According to Goldberg, each of these threats in its own way represents the corrosive force of nature that attempts to drag us back into the pre-Miracle past. Because the seeds of our tribal and illiberal past lie in the heart of every newborn, every generation faces the danger of abandoning the Miracle and reverting back to the natural course of human events, characterized by poverty and misery. Therefore, it is the work of mediating institutions (rule of law, family, church, etc.) to sustain for each new generation the ideas and practices that fortify the progress of the West against natural decay.
The book’s biggest flaw is the dizzying amount of ground the author covers as he theorizes hundreds of years of history. The reader will need to remind himself or herself of the larger argument as Goldberg dives into topics ranging from pop culture romanticism to the decline of the American family. Furthermore, Goldberg is not lacking in his caveats and carve-outs as he presents an array of competing theories on the development of the West, ultimately concluding that there’s some truth in all of them. With that being said, what the book lacks in cohesion, it makes up for in intellectual honesty and keen cultural analysis.
The book is at its strongest when diagnosing elements of both parties as illiberal reactionaries. Here Goldberg proves equally frustrating to the identity politics of the left and the tribal nostalgia of the right. He characterizes both as romanticisms, reactions harkening back to “pre-Miracle” tribalism.
He uses the analogy of an oasis in the desert. Turning back toward the “unity of meaning” of the past, nationalist factions err just as much as the march forward into the progressive, utopian future. Both paths lead society back into the desert. In Goldberg’s words, “We’ve reached the conceptual end of history,” and to lust for the mythic unity of the past or the progress of the future is to succumb to the “allure of tribal justice.”
The critique of identity politics on the left is a common refrain among conservative writers. What’s less common is for conservative writers to combat the rise of illiberal nationalism on the American right. Goldberg writes, “Romantic nationalism is in full, if noxious flower, amidst the fever swamps of the American right.” As evidenced by the firestorm of op-eds in the David French and Sohrab Ahmari debate, there is a significant voice among conservatives that longs for the “cult of unity” of the past. Goldberg argues this longing is reactionary, shortsighted, and dangerous.
The resurgence of nationalism is not a healthy return to the roots of American order but a symptom of the decay of civil society, what Alexis de Tocqueville called the “little platoons” of shared life. As faith, community, family, and the host of voluntary associations that fill life with meaning erode, we fill that void of meaning with our politics. Whether our politics are defined by the tribalism of identity or illiberal nationalism, both push American democracy away from its foundations, and there lies the approach of danger amongst us.