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Stokes: Reviewing “Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying America”

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist

It’s not uncommon for columnists to put out a list of recommended books early in the summer in hopes that readers will take up their suggestions during lazy days at the beach or lake.  That time is past now, but perhaps you can get in a few quick reads before football season hits the meat of the schedule.

I’ve been fortunate to read a number of strong books this year.  I’ll give you three to start: The Vanishing American Adult by Senator Ben Sasse (Nebraska), The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols, and The Once and Future Liberal by Mark Lilla.  All three books are thoughtful and well-argued, and make valuable contributions to our current social and political debates.  Perhaps my favorite book of the year, however, is Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying America.  It’s a long subtitle, but an important read in our present moment.

Readers may recognize Goldberg from his appearances on Fox News, his syndicated columns, and his work at National Review, arguably the nation’s most influential conservative publication.  Suicide of the West is his third book, and it deals with an important, if under-appreciated, topic.  Goldberg’s thesis is this: the democratic capitalism that we have enjoyed in the United States, and the West in general, is not the historical norm.

In fact, Goldberg notes that our own approach to government and economics is such a historical accident that throughout the book he terms it “The Miracle.”  It is this miracle that has led to a tremendous amount of American prosperity, better health and longevity, and while our own founding did not provide freedom for all, it contained the mechanism for bringing about that freedom.  Moreover, as these ideas have spread – ideas like the rule of law, private property, free markets – that prosperity has spread throughout the world, and billions have reaped the benefits. It is a miracle for which we should all be grateful, and it is in danger of withering way if we do not properly attend to it.

As the title suggests, Goldberg is concerned that we are in the process of eroding this miracle, and slowly reverting back to the world that existed prior to the Enlightenment, a world where free markets, the rule of law, and guaranteed freedoms given by God and protected by the state only existed in fits and starts.  Goldberg is intensely concerned about tribalism, which he recognizes as the tendency to see oneself as part of a particular political tribe prior to seeing oneself as a citizen.

Of course, we demonstrate loyalty to our families, but as a political matter, Goldberg is concerned that Americans increasingly find themselves broken apart into various tribes based on race, class, gender, religion, region, or a dozen other qualifications.  When Americans start to value what’s best for their own particular tribe, the ideals of the American founding become watered down and ineffective, and we tend to revert back to our earlier, pre-Enlightenment selves. Goldberg certainly recognizes this drift towards identity politics on the Left, but also sees it fomenting on the Right, particularly in the age of Donald Trump. We should have different ideas about how to organize our society, but the problem emerges when our political motivations are based on a group identity instead of a set of principles that transcend our race, gender, class, and possibly even religion.

At its most dangerous, these habits and practices reinforce that we are not citizens of a republic but are instead members of various tribes all jockeying for position and favors.  This sort of practice inevitably leads to corruption and cronyism while opening the door for strong, undemocratic leadership. It is the very thing our Founding was designed to prevent.  Yet Goldberg notes that we are upheld not merely by the literal text of our Constitution, but also by a series of unwritten norms and behaviors that undergird the law itself. This is on par with John Adams’ famous line that our form of government was created for a “moral and religious people.”  Mr. Adams may take issue with the specific points of doctrine at our various churches on Sunday, but his point is a strong one.

Specific to our current moment, partisans on both sides are treating the press with a derision that undermines the spirit of the 1st Amendment. That of course includes President Trump’s vindictive comments about “the enemy of the people,” as well as new progressive superstar Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez banning the press from her own town hall meetings.  Likewise, the street violence among both the far left and the far right serve to chip away, quickly, at the foundations of a civil society.

While a serious and perhaps gloomy read, depending on one’s disposition, Goldberg ends on a very high note.  As a solution to these threats, he encourages a return to civil society. This means working in the mediating institutions – churches, PTOs, youth sports leagues, nonprofits, even labor unions – help give additional meaning to our lives and indeed reduce the need for a strong, overwhelming government on either the left or the right.  

By seeking meaning in our lives outside of politics, we build stronger bonds with our neighbors and begin to find solutions on our own. Alabamians have been good at this for many years, and we would do well to heed this advice as towards another important election. In the meantime, I highly recommend Suicide of the West, for our leaders as well as our citizens.

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