Last week I got into a discussion on Twitter with a long-time conservative reader who was upset about something he called “tribalism.” We went back and forth for a while but I couldn’t figure out what he was talking about, and then I remembered that I had recently heard the National Review “The Editors” podcast endorse a book by an NRO staffer named Jonah Goldberg called “Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy.”
I figured that rather than bug my reader on Twitter for answers he couldn’t give me, I’d go right to the source. If anyone could explain tribalism to me, it would be the guy who wrote the book on it! I was wrong.
A book about big eternal ideas that’s relentlessly, tiresomely focused on the present
Goldberg is a conservative ideologue, but his ideology is based entirely on the conservative grievances of late 2017. A few examples:
“Barack Obama said in his Farewell Address:
“‘Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power—with our participation, and the choices we make. Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms. Whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law. America is no fragile thing. But the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.’
“Many of my fellow conservatives were angered by this, and given Barack Obama’s remarkable, yoga master-like flexibility in interpreting constitutional text, I can understand why” (p. 97).
Taken on its face this is a remarkable confession of motivated reasoning.
“The question almost surely was intended to be rhetorical in the same way the organizers of an essay competition at Oberlin asking ‘Has diversity made us stronger?’ would simply assume the contest was over who would most creatively—or loyally—answer ‘Yes'” (p. 135).
How did the big scary liberal arts college in Ohio hurt you, Jonah?
“I’ve tried to avoid making explicitly partisan arguments, but attention must be paid to the insidious and incestuous relationship between the Democratic Party and government unions. It is no accident that the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents the IRS, gave about 96 percent of its political donations during the 2016 election cycle to Democratic candidates” (pp. 196-197).
This one is particularly incoherent because the book is a paean to the role of non-state organizations in giving life meaning. Then he just hangs a huge asterisk on his thesis that reads: “except unions.”
Does the Constitution “work?”
There is a version of the history of American civilization that goes like this: the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights embody a set of universal ideals that the Founders fell far short of. However, those shortcomings have been addressed one-by-one by subsequent generations, which have used the universal promise of the founding ideals to correct injustice after injustice to better bring America in line with her values.
This is a story with obvious appeal. It means the genocide of the native population of North America, slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, restriction of the franchise to men, Chinese exclusion, Japanese-American internment, segregation, poll taxes, grandfather clauses, redlining, police violence, the war on drugs, mass incarceration, stop-and-frisk, purges of the voter rolls, gerrymandering, are not features of our constitutional order, but violations of it or even attacks on it.
And this is more or less the story Goldberg tells, although he would not put it in exactly these words: we have a Constitution of ideals, which each generation seeks to make more imminent in the lives of the people.
There is a problem with this story, however, and that is the fact that at each turning point in this story, those fighting to fulfill the ideals of the Constitution have been confronted by those who insist the true meaning of the Constitution lies is the status quo or a reversion to an earlier, less just order.
Why The South Must Prevail
In 1957, William F. Buckley, a father of the modern conservative movement and the founder of National Review (Jonah Goldberg’s employer), published a short column which is worth reading in full, headlined “Why The South Must Prevail.” He wrote:
“The central question that emerges-and it is not a parliamentary question or a question that is
answered by merely consulting a catalogue of the rights of American citizens, born Equal-is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes-the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.”
Jonah Goldberg is many vile things (an apologist for torture not least of them), but I don’t know if he’s a racist or not, and am not trying to imply that writing for a magazine founded by a racist that spouted racist vitriol for decades makes you a racist by association. That inference is left to the reader.
What I am saying is that it has always been the business of conservatives to insist that whatever progress has just been achieved in fulfilling the ideals of the Constitution is the last work that needed to be done, and all further work should be abandoned.
It has become unfashionable to remember that George W. Bush ran for reelection in 2004 on a campaign of amending the Constitution to ban marriages, nationwide, between people of the same gender. Today, with the right to marry the person of your choice upheld by the Supreme Court, the very same people insist that the work of equality is done. “This far and no further” is always the order of the day.
The coincidence theory of conservative politics
All this feeds into what I call the “coincidence theory” of conservative politics, which takes two main forms:
- The coincidence of timing says that whatever era a conservative is born into happens to have finally settled once and for all every important issue, or might have gone a bit too far.
- The coincidence of reason says that when you apply logic and reason to a problem, you happen to arrive at exactly the conservative’s preferred policy.
I discussed the coincidence of timing above, but Goldberg also illustrates the coincidence of reason in his attack on the minimum wage:
“At least in the medieval guilds it was understood that giving an inexperienced worker an apprenticeship—i.e., a shot at learning a trade—was something of great value. The wage, if there even was one, was trivial compared to the opportunity to learn how to be a blacksmith, mason, or tanner. That was the path to prosperity. First jobs, particularly for unskilled non-college-educated young workers, play the same role. If you work hard and learn the business at, say, McDonald’s, you will likely be promoted to assistant manager before the year is out. That is invaluable experience. Raising the minimum wage above what employers can bear or to the level where hiring an iPad makes more sense is immoral, because it is tantamount to taxing entry-level jobs. If there is anything more settled in economics than the proposition that taxing an activity reduces that activity, I don’t know what it is. To say that the minimum wage should be a ‘living wage’ is to tell employers they must pay inexperienced workers above their value, and that is unsustainable” (p. 204).
It’s irrelevant to me whether you agree with Goldberg that it’s “immoral” to raise the minimum wage, or if you agree with me that if we are to require people work to survive, we must pay them enough to survive.
What’s obvious is that our policy beliefs are upstream of our political beliefs. You can see by Goldberg’s story about the minimum wage that he did not start with a set of beliefs about the medieval guild system and then deduce his view on the minimum wage from that; he started with a belief about the minimum wage and then worked backwards from that to a just-so story about medieval guilds.
The coincidence of reason is not unique to conservatives, but in my experience they are uniquely incapable of acknowledging it. Leftists who want to raise the minimum wage do not pretend to start with an elaborate just-so story about “returns to capital being above their historical norm and government intervention being necessary to recalibrate the economy-wide return to capital and labor.” They start with a story about the need to raise the minimum wage, and then explain how capital can afford to pay for it because of the enormous profits capital is currently earning.
Everyone is entitled to marshal the most convincing available arguments for their preferred policy views. But if you find someone who believes those arguments caused their policy views, or that their policy views are the inevitable or necessary consequence of some external feature of the world, you are dealing with someone who does not, or is pretending not to, understand how political beliefs are actually formed.
Unfortunately, I didn’t learn anything about “tribalism”
I was excited, 200 pages into “Suicide of the West,” to arrive at Chapter 10, “Tribalism Today: Nationalism, Populism, and Identity Politics.” Finally, I thought, I’d get some answers about what this “tribalism” business is all about and what’s so horrible about it.
I did not, but to explain why not, it’s worth quoting the core of Goldberg’s thesis, as near as I can identify it:
“We still believe that the government shouldn’t exclude some groups based upon arbitrary prejudices. But the rest of the melting-pot formula is breaking down in three ways. First, we are now taught that the government should give special preferences to some groups. Second, as a cultural imperative, we are increasingly told that we should judge people based upon the group they belong to. Assimilation is now considered a dirty word. And last, we are taught that there is no escaping from our group identity” (p. 211).
I think Goldberg’s formulation is useful because a slight reformulation puts it in direct contrast with the actual beliefs of progressives in America today:
- First, the government gives special preferences to some groups. Redlining, for example, is a practice that prevented the residents of predominantly black neighborhoods from receiving federally backed mortgages and accumulating housing wealth. FHA loans were a special preference given to the white residents of white neighborhoods.
- Second, people are judged based on the group they belong or are perceived to belong to. Race science, as practiced by Charles Murray and his acolytes, who are quoted extensively throughout “Suicide of the West,” is a systematic, comprehensive, negative judgment on the value of African-American culture and civilization, and elevation of white European culture and civilization.
- Last, we are not allowed to escape from our group identity. State violence against ethnic minorities, whether Japanese-Americans, Hispanic residents of Maricopa County, or black Montgomery bus riders, was based on an inescapable identity assigned by the organs of state power.
We are not taught these things. These things are true, and we have the choice whether to learn them or not. If we choose to learn them, we have the choice whether to act on them or not.
And when we do learn them, and when we do act on them, we can count on facing opposition from the Jonah Goldbergs of the world at every turn.