The Remnant and the Restless Crowd

Jonah Goldberg’s ‘Suicide of the West’
Jacob Lawrence, The Builders, 1947 (White House Collection/White House Historical Association)

In the Book of Isaiah, “the remnant” refers to a small group of Israelites who will survive the invasion of the Assyrian army and one day be returned to the Promised Land: “A remnant will return, a remnant of Jacob will return to the Mighty God.” A recurring concept throughout the Hebrew Bible, the remnant signifies those faithful few chosen by God to rebuild in the wake of catastrophe. The remnant are the ones who remain and keep the faith.

“The Remnant” is also the name of a podcast hosted by National Review senior editor and prominent never-Trump conservative Jonah Goldberg. The weekly interview show is a refuge for figures on the right who’ve declined the Trumpian Kool Aid—or at least only gingerly sipped it. For Goldberg, the relevant “remnant” is the one described by the libertarian essayist Albert Jay Nock in his 1936 Atlantic Monthly article, “Isaiah’s Job,” in which he outlined the task of the freedom-loving thinker in a time of rampant statism. The prophet of liberty, Nock wrote, should not tailor his message to “the masses”; rather, he should preach to that “substratum of right-thinking and well-doing” elites who will hear his message, bear its truths, and wait until society is ready to correct course, at which time their wisdom will once again be called upon.

In many ways, Nock is an ideal avatar for never-Trumpists like Goldberg. Despite the humiliating defeat of their preferred candidates in the 2016 Republican primary, the paltry public support for Paul Ryan’s austerity gospel, and Trump’s sturdy approval among self-identified conservatives, these figures nonetheless believe their vision will eventually prevail. For Nock, the absence of widespread public support for his ideas was itself evidence of their virtue. Likewise, for never-Trump conservatives, the absence of a discernable constituency for their brand of “classical liberalism” is evidence of a sickness in society—not of a problem with classical liberalism itself. Society has lost its way. But the remnant is listening, keeping the faith. One day, America will recognize its error, eschew populism, and champion the policy agenda of the American Enterprise Institute.

This is the vision offered in Goldberg’s elaborately subtitled new book, Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy. An improbable bestseller, Goldberg’s book has already been heralded as a modern classic by his conservative peers. Despite the timing of its release, it’s not exactly a book about Trump. Instead, it offers a sweeping defense of the liberal capitalist ideas that have fallen perilously out of fashion. His premise is simple: liberal democracy and market capitalism emerged miraculously in the nineteenth century because of an “unprecedented transformation in the way humans thought about the world and their place in it.” Today, that Miracle (his capitalization) is endangered by populists of the left and the right who lack sufficient gratitude for our ideological inheritance—or an appreciation for the tenuousness of the society it undergirds.

Goldberg finds the origins of the Miracle in the philosophy of John Locke. These new Lockean virtues—“the idea that the individual is sovereign; that our rights come from God, not government; that the fruits of our labors belong to us; and that no man should be less equal before the law because of his faith or class”—ignited, for the first time in history, the engine of human ingenuity. America’s founding documents universalized those values, nominally extending them to all men.

 

What Goldberg misses is the way civic institutions have always been embedded in politics, especially the politics of the working class. The border between “civil society” and “politics” has always been porous.

Before the Miracle, all of human existence was nasty, brutish, and short. Tribalism and violence reigned. Civilization, especially the hard disciplines of liberal capitalism, imposed unnatural fetters on our baser human instincts. But the corrupting influence of our evolutionary heritage always threatens to muck things up. The desire to surrender to these instincts—to glorify feeling and nature over rational decision-making—Goldberg calls “romanticism.”

Romanticism has taken many guises, but Goldberg identifies it primarily with the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. For Goldberg, every populist from Marx to Hitler to Huey Long to Bernie Sanders is Rousseau’s heir. Throughout modern intellectual history, Goldberg sees a push-and-pull between Lockean and Rousseauian impulses, between those who prioritize individual reason and those who embrace collective feeling. The former appreciate that the best we can hope for is a minimalist government that creates the conditions for pluralism and capitalism to flourish. The latter, in every epoch, long (often subconsciously) for a return to tribal society: an organic community where their emotional identities are validated and reflected by the state. These imagined unities take different forms—color, class, religion—but always this primal instinct toward the group leads to tyranny.

It isn’t that racial, class, or religious solidarity are necessarily bad in themselves, Goldberg says. They’re natural. Community is what makes life worth living. Liberal societies need mediating institutions—families, churches, businesses, schools, sports teams, charities, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, etc.—to give meaning to the relentless, unfeeling churn of life under capitalism. Romantics, however, be they right-wing or left-wing, make the mistake of trying to integrate these microcosmic institutions into the macrocosm of governance. For Goldberg, the norms of the organic community which preside in the microcosm—solidarity, faith, fraternity—are inevitably corrupting when applied to the government: The state can’t love you. Obama isn’t your dad. Trump isn’t a soldier of God sent to punish your enemies.

When intimate, local institutions break down—as they have continuously for the last half century—progressives and right-wing populists sublimate their emotional attachment to these authentic communities onto politics, where, says Goldberg, they don’t belong. This process, Goldberg suggests, has contributed to the hyper-partisanship of our era. Atomized Americans attach themselves to Party as they once did to neighborhood, church, or club, deriving a sense of belonging from their political team. Political scientists have variously called this phenomena “affective polarization” or “expressive partisanship.” In the age of Trump, says Goldberg, this dynamic has acquired a particularly bellicose timbre, which he calls “ecstatic schadenfreude”—more than ideology or self-interest, Goldberg believes, partisans are now motivated by a desire to see their political opponents humiliated.

Ecstatic schadenfreude may well be a real phenomenon. What Goldberg misses is the way civic institutions have always been embedded in politics, especially the politics of the working class. The border between “civil society” and “politics” has always been porous.

Goldberg approvingly cites Robert Putnam, the progressive political scientist, for seeming to find that diversity breeds social distrust. (Putnam has disputed that characterization of his research.) But the more consequential implication of Putnam’s analysis of social capital—in Bowling Alone and, more recently, in Our Kids—is not just that community ties have broken down among the lower classes, but that inequality is both engine and exhaust of that process of dissolution.

What I mean is: the destruction of working-class community spaces is both a product of accelerated inequality and a factor exacerbating the yawning gap between rich and poor.  Inequality and segregation, the dwindling availability of leisure time, and the relentless commodification of daily life have eroded institutions like the church, the union hall, and the bowling league. Whereas the children of the elite continue to benefit from networks of privilege (wealthy friends and family, elite private schools, fraternities), disadvantaged children—in the absence of community institutions—are denied the opportunity to accumulate sufficient “social capital” to be upwardly mobile. In the past, community spaces didn’t just generate social capital for the working class; they provided at least the possibility of accumulating political capital as well. Churches and union halls and social clubs have always been the places where political movements were born.

Community, in other words, is a prerequisite for collective action—the only means by which oppressed people have ever wrested power from their oppressors. The oppressed can’t rely on an enlightened few—be they Clintonite technocrats, libertarians, or even a Leninist vanguard—to build a better society for them. To the horror of the remnant, the masses must take action for themselves. For those without access to resources, lobbyists, influential friends, or syndicated columns, mass politics is the only game in town. Goldberg’s desire for mediating institutions to be untainted by politics is really a desire for politics to remain the exclusive domain of elites like himself.

It’s of course true, as Goldberg notes, that such efforts—identity and group-based political movements—can be destructive. Fascism is such a movement. The alt-right and Trumpian nationalism too. For Goldberg, such romantic populisms are always an appeal to emotion over reason. “Giving in to the passion of the crowd is inherently corrupting,” Goldberg writes, “because it seeks no higher authority than itself and says you have righteous entitlement to act on your gut.”

He forgets, however, that “acting with your gut” is a rational political choice if you’re hungry.

 

Politics is the means by which groups seek power in society. Mobilizing on the basis of (racial or gender or sexual) identity is one way to do that.

In truth, populism isn’t an ideology, or even, as Goldberg puts it, “a mood.” Populism is an idiom—a way of talking about politics in which there is a “we” and a “them.” The fact that populism can be mobilized for good and ill is no more a condemnation of its value than is the fact that one can use satire to ridicule the strong as well as the weak. The “we” of one populist appeal can be exclusive—white male Christians; or it can be expansive—workers of the world. The “them” can be a racialized other; or it can be representatives of powerful forces who are causing genuine harm to the members of the “we”—say, fossil fuel companies.

Goldberg writes that “identity politics” are actually contests over power as if he’s discovered a nefarious plot. But of course they are. Politics is the means by which groups seek power in society. Mobilizing on the basis of (racial or gender or sexual) identity is one way to do that.

So what about white identity then? Goldberg spends many pages advancing the perspective that white identity politics are a natural—if unfortunate—consequence of the political rhetoric of the left. “I don’t think the average white American is nearly as obsessed with race, never mind invested in ‘white supremacy,’ as the left claims,” Goldberg writes. “But the more you demonize them, the more you say that ‘whiteness’ defines white people, the more likely it is white people will start to defensively think of themselves in those terms.”

This is a fascinating move, common on the right: white supremacy is not an animating impulse in American society, but if enough “identity peddlers” insist that it is, it will become so. White supremacy is like Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, say its name enough times, and it appears. But ask yourself what is more likely: that white supremacy is indeed a fact of America’s architecture and those embracing it are doing so because white dominance  is imperiled; or that white supremacy is a fantasy—a made up leftist conspiracy—and those embracing it are doing so merely out of defensiveness?

White people do dominate, as a matter of both history and undisputed social science. (I don’t feel the need to walk through the litany of statistics that prove this fact; unlike Goldberg, I don’t have the luxury of a lengthy appendix). It won't do to pretend otherwise. How progressives talk about this reality is perhaps an important consideration. The success of left movements which hope to involve white people (particularly white people who don’t feel particularly dominant) may depend on their ability to name the illness without aggravating its symptoms. For example, they might find more ways to communicate that although white dominance is real, it does not mean “no white people suffer in America”—or that individual whites are morally “tainted” by their whiteness. Indeed, they might argue, as W.E.B. Dubois did, that white privilege harms the vast majority of white people. In Dubois’s view, white supremacy is a poison pill which blinds the white worker to her shared interests with the non-white worker, leaving the real enemy—the capitalists—to exploit them both in peace.

But progressives aren’t to blame for somehow conjuring white identity politics out of thin air. That’s absurd. The roots of white defensiveness and backlash run deep (see: every historical instance in which non-whites have gained some material or political ground, from Reconstruction to Obama’s presidency). Saying the words “white supremacy” didn’t create America’s racial psychosis. It merely named it.

 

Dissatisfaction with the terms of liberal democracy does not arise, for the most part, out of some atavistic pining for authoritarian or tribal society, but out of a recognition on the part of the marginalized that the terms do not (yet) apply to them.

Goldberg’s fixation on words—their power to unleash social forces, reinforce or undermine established tradition—crops up again and again. He insists, following McCloskey, that words and ideas are the motor of history. 

Goldberg writes as if the inclusive words of the Declaration and the Constitution were beneficent time bombs—“The American Revolution…unleashed a new argument for new principles that, when carried to their moral and logical conclusion, commanded the end of slavery and Jim Crow.” [My emphasis.] Elsewhere he argues that the Founders “lit the fuse on the bomb that would demolish such thinking.” It was only a matter of time before they blew up the structures of white settler democracy and inaugurated a new birth of freedom. The words set in motion a process that could not be stopped.

This is exactly backwards. Words help shape the world, of course. But they don’t condition its possibilities. Progress is achieved through contests over the meaning of “democracy,” “equality,” “freedom”—and where those contests takes place is not in the halls of AEI or the op-ed pages of the New York Times. It takes place in the street. And, to a lesser extent, at the ballot box. When democratic movements marshal social forces sufficient to invest these words with new meaning, their meaning can change—along with society. But it isn’t the words that affect that change; it’s the people.


If radicals, like Dr. King, have sometimes used the language of liberalism or Americanism or even creedal nationalism to achieve their goal—to invest these concepts with new, more egalitarian meaning—that doesn’t necessarily vindicate the original meanings of the terms. For almost a century, American “equality” countenanced the permanent enslavement of a people on the basis of their skin color. That is what “equality” meant. Abolitionists successfully changed its meaning, often using the term as a cudgel in their fight to do so. But the fight matters more than the cudgel.

To put this another way: Dissatisfaction with the terms of liberal democracy does not arise, for the most part, out of some atavistic pining for authoritarian or tribal society, but out of a recognition on the part of the marginalized that the terms do not (yet) apply to them.

Campus social-justice activists, for example, don’t grow to resent “free speech” because they prefer a world without it. They do so because it becomes transparent that free speech isn’t universal—that those with platforms and the ability to amplify their voices have a lot more of it, and often the ability to drown out those who have none. (As A.J. Liebling quipped, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed to everyone who owns one.”) What they’re demanding is not the absence of free speech, but a world where it can actually be universally enjoyed.

This is the constitutive lacuna of liberalism, classical or otherwise. Without a critique of power—an understanding of how “universal” rights are differently available depending on one’s position in society—liberalism fails to live up to its own promises. It always has.

The left tends to think of liberal rights in aspirational terms. The world they are trying to build is one in which freedom of speech, privacy, and other rights can actually be guaranteed to everyone. Where political equality can flourish in fact as it now does in ideological fiction.

 

I don’t think “the West” is poised to commit suicide. The small group of nations huddled under that umbrella continue to exert global hegemony. Liberal capitalism is still “common sense” to many. But more and more people—on the right and left—have become disillusioned with that common sense. The question is why. Conservatives like Goldberg believe Americans have simply lost sight of the glory of their liberal inheritance; teach them gratitude, and the West will prevail. Right-wing nationalists believe people are correctly identifying liberalism as an ideology of defeat; we need a strongman to crush our civilizational enemies. And the center-left, the Democratic Party elite, believe that racists and authoritarians have tricked the public—with the help of a foreign menace—into abandoning their vision of inclusive, mildly redistributive liberalism. Their prescription: vote in November and the adults will put things in order.

I’m not particularly satisfied with any of these explanations or with the solutions they entail. The best elements of the socialist left have a better answer: those discontented with liberalism have good reason to doubt its pretensions to universality, to providing opportunity for everyone to enjoy their rights and live the good life. We won’t win the battle against illberalism by insisting—against all evidence—that America is already great. Rather, extending liberalism’s promises to everyone will require a massive redistribution of wealth and power.


In a sense, Never-Trump conservatives and center-left elites suffer the same delusion: that the cat of disillusionment can be put back in the bag of neoliberal stasis. Third Way Democrats recently held an invitation-only summit dedicated to stemming the progressive tide in their party. They share Goldberg’s belief that the populist moment is a passing phase, that a remnant lies in wait for a return to political sanity—when the louder, bolder voices will give way to calm and clear-eyed restraint.

If these prophets of moderation could open their eyes, however, they would see they’re preaching only to each other. There is no hidden constituency for their policy agenda, no anti-Trump conservative movement, no moderate majority. The remnant is the same thirty men huddled in a conference room, arguing with each other and praising each other’s books. Meanwhile, outside, the crowd grows restless.

Published in the September 21, 2018 issue: 

Sam Adler-Bell is a senior policy associate at the Century Foundation, a think tank in New York.

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