A Conversation with Jonah Goldberg

By: Hannah Dickson

Hannah Dickson:At the end of your book there is a quote describing how you believe we have reached the end of history—the top of a summit—and how the only the only direction we can go to prevent socialism or nationalism is back down. What are the ways that society can stay on the summit and persevere to avoid these suicidal tendencies?

Jonah Goldberg: As I said in the book, Fukuyama gets a lot of grief for saying it’s the end of history, but if we go by what he actually meant he was talking about the end of history in terms of fearing out the proper role and function of the state. I’m a big Hayek guy and my view is that liberal democratic capitalism is unnatural and because it does not, at least as designed, recognizes identity essentially. Whether that’s identity through bloodlines, gender, skin color; it is supposed to be a macrocosm of neutral rules that are equally applicable to everybody. It is completely unnatural to the history of humanity. So, part of my view is because it is unnatural human nature keeps trying to find paths back in—like the jungle growing back. Part of the trick is to recognize that it is one of these demons that take different forms. It could be identity politics. It could be the aristocracy. It could be populism. It could be all of these different things. But, basically what it’s trying to do is bring us back to a tribal way of living and that’s part of it.

The other part of it, which is why the working title for the book for a long time was “The Tribe of Liberty,” is that you have to take into account human nature when you teach people this stuff. If you teach this stuff purely as a set of mathematical principles that are sort of almost deducted from a Cartesian point of view then people aren’t going to have an emotional commitment to it. They aren’t going to have the passion, so part of it is that you have to teach patriotism in a nonpartisan way that makes us have a tribal attachment to these weird customs that were sort of invented by the English that make us think that this unnatural way of living is in fact natural.

HD:You say that one problem with capitalism is that we don’t see the benefits of it. Can you speak more to this?

JG: One of the problems with capitalism—there are many problems with capitalism, one of them is that it’s also unnatural—it is the most successful cooperative enterprise in improving that state of humanity that has ever been invented. It only has one drawback: it doesn’t feel like it. It doesn’t feel cooperative. It feels deracinating and alienating, because in a certain sense it is. But it gets stranger because we are cooperating together peacefully. It is this miraculous thing in the history of humanity because normally the correct response to a stranger is killing them and taking their stuff. The problem is, it can be very corrosive to storehouses of social capital: organized religion, the family, tradition and customs. So if we don’t tend to those things we can spend down that social capital and then we no longer create the citizens that make for good capitalists.

HD: In a capitalist society we need political discourse, some opposition, in order to have a market of ideas. Therefore, where is there a balance between the spectrum of political discourse and the tribalism that is tearing America apart?

JG: One of the things that I think is imperative is pushing as much politics down to the lowest level possible. Our political competition happens in that zone of life in which you actually know the names of people you’re arguing with, where you recognize them. There’s this thing called Dunbar’s Number where we are only supposed to know 150 to 200 people. As human beings, the rest become abstractions. The more you push these things down to the lowest level possible, the more your bleed out that sense of unseen powerful forces are running my life. Instead, the powers that be are Phil and Andy and Susan and whoever. You see them in your communities and that creates a certain amount of humility. You still have culture war fights but the winners have to look the losers in the eye. I think that’s an important part of it.

Beyond that, maybe because its just fresh in my head, I just did this piece for National Review about the moral equivalent of war and I was rereading Randolph Warren’s book about war being the health of the state. He maintains the distinction that [Bill] Buckley and a lot of people would also maintain that there is a real difference between the government and the state. The government is that clunky vessel or tool, a mechanism that we use to make decisions and argue about policy in life. The government is open to criticism. Politicians are open to criticism. Just because you disagree with me on something politically doesn’t mean you’re necessarily a bad person, it just mean we have disagreements. The state is this thing, which is sort of a big them in my rhetoric from the last fifteen years, that is particularly at the hands of progressives, a substitute for God. In the sense that the state does the things that God would do if God existed. The problem with that is that’s totalizing.  When you start arguing about what the state should do it automatically puts people on the wrong side of good and evil kind of questions. You have these problems in all sorts of areas in our life. Because global institutions are worn down and social capital is being spent down people are retreating from their local communities and going online for virtual communities, which are garbage. Instead of looking to do politics where they live, they’re looking at politics at a national level. When they look at politics at a national level it is impossible not to turn people you disagree with into abstractions that you think are evil.

HD: Specifically for college students or young adults, maybe even some future politicians, what would you want us to take out of your book in terms of how we approach society knowing these things about its ultimate fate?

JG: Yeah, I mean there are a bunch of different things. One of the reasons I’m here because of the Buckley Program. I was fortunate enough to know Bill Buckley. People ask me what Bill was like and one of the things I always say is that he was the best mannered person I have ever known. Good manners are those things that we do and say that make people feel respected. We have kind of lost that understanding of what manners are. While I think there is a lot of garbage in political correctness, there’s a lot of what you might call ‘priest craft’ in political correctness, when the priesthood changes the meaning of the word just to make you feel bigoted and in the defense when you don’t need to be. It is an aspect of political correctness that ignoring, then, to come up with good manners and to show people respect. Too many young conservatives think that because being an asshole is politically incorrect, therefore it’s okay to be an asshole. Bill Buckley was biting, he was assertive, he was forceful, he was tough, but he was never an ass. That is something that is lost, not just among the college students but also among a lot of grown up conservatives too including some of my more famous colleagues on the right. And I’ll be honest it was a lesson that I needed to learn myself. More broadly, I think that just simply understanding. The book has a pretty pessimistic title but it ends on a note, which is sort of more upbeat, which is about gratitude. As my friend Yuval Levin likes to say, conservatism when you boil it down is simply gratitude. It is this idea that says these are the things that I think are not only lovely but lovable and I want to pass them on to the next generation because I love them. That’s how gratitude leads to conservatism. We don’t teach gratitude, we teach resentment and entitlement. You get a very different society when you choose those. I have a sneaking suspicion that some of that is taught even here.

HD: With our society impaired by identity politics and tribalism, what do you think makes a good political leader?

That’s an interesting question. I would say that first off, there are precious few politicians that I have respect for these days. I could probably name them on one hand. Part of the problem is that the incentive structure we have set up does not reward people for being good leaders; it rewards people for being followers. The way that Mitch McConnell and Lindsay Graham have been behaving of late really breaks my heart. We live in a populist moment. Populism, whether it’s on the left or the right, has very little tolerance for arguments. Instead, everybody has to get with the program. I’m very much a Calvin Coolidge guy. My view is that the cult of unity is one of the most dangerous things in human history.  The hero in the Anglo-American political system isn’t the mob; it’s the guy who stands up to the mob.

The problem with the incentive structure we have right now, the guy who stands up to the mob loses his job. It takes some triangulating and it takes some bobbing and weaving, and that sort of gets to one of the rules at National Review. Bill Rusher who was the publisher of National Review for a very long time, his advice to young people who were starting at NR was that politicians would always disappoint you. It was because politicians are necessarily bad people, it is just that the lane that they’re in requires them to do things that will always disappoint some 23-year-old firebrand who wants to work at National Review. Or, as it says in the Bible, “put not your faith in princes.” For young people in particular, one of the things that gives me a little bit of hope is that young people tend to care more about the principles than the party. They care more about the arguments than the personalities. It shows up in polling data. Ben Shapiro actually had a really good piece on this on The Standard last summer. If you’re over 65 and you’re a self-identifies conservative not only do you want Trump to run again, you basically want him to be president for life. If you’re 18-24 or even under 35 and you’re a self-described conservative you overwhelming want to see Trump primaried. Part of Ben’s explanation, which I think is right, is that young people actually live in a more diverse polyglot world where they have to talk to people who disagree with them. For old people, they have already done the self-sorting. They are already watching Fox News all day long.

For young people they have to go eat in the cafeteria and if they say that they are conservative the immediate question is: how can you call yourself conservative? What about Donald Trump this? What about Donald Trump that? I think one of the healthy things for young conservatives is that they understand that there’s a moral and philosophical component that is distinct from just all the wins and all the “liberal tears are delicious” garbage. Owning that is a good thing. It is a healthy thing. Goethe says, “be bold and great forces will come to your aid.” If you’re in your twenties and you can’t be bold in what you believe and if you start thinking you have to compromise all your principles then you’re not going to have any principles left by the time you’re my age.

Hannah Dickson is a junior in Davenport College. She can be reached at hannah.dickson@yale.edu.