Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Why has Jonah Goldberg lost it?

Before we get started, we need to remind ourselves of two important facts. Jonah Goldberg is a member of the elite. He is an insider with a powerful interest in maintaining the status quo. Donald Trump, for all his money, was always an outsider.

Jonah Goldberg, by his own account, screwed up, and struggled back, meaning he didn't go to the Ivy league school he should have been able to get accepted by but instead to a less prestigious but still-well-outside-most-people's-reach college. Then he had a moment thanks to the Clinton scandals and he made the most of it. He was never an outsider but he is a good role model who worked hard to make it. And that experience gave him the freedom to write like an outsider and he made the most of it. And good for him—he did far better and wrote far better than most of us will ever manage.

Then came Trump.

I agreed with Goldberg about Trump and still do. Trump is not the decent, principled leader conservatives want in the most powerful office in the world. That said, neither was Mitt Romney, John McCain, George W. Bush, Bob Dole or George H.W. Bush. Have I left anyone out? And Trump not only actually won, he's done far better in office that most of us would have predicted. (So far. It could all come crumbling down tomorrow.)

Jonah Goldberg, meanwhile, is doing something that looks  a lot like bitter clinging. Not a column goes by that he doesn't dig himself in a little deeper. In the long run he may well end up looking like a deeply principled man who held out for the truth when all others compromised. History might, as Castro put it, vindicate him. But vindicate him in what? I read Goldberg these days and what he says comes across as a little confused rather than deeply principled.

Let me show you what I mean. Here's a line from his latest. He is talking about how "weird" things have become.
I have a partial theory as to why, and it doesn’t begin with Trump. It begins with a failure of elites and the institutions they run.
So, it's a failure of elites and institutions that is at the heart of the problem. A reasonable expectation is that Goldberg will now tell us what has gone wrong with the elites and the institutions they run. But that's not what happens.
Nearly three-fourths of Americans cannot identify all three branches of the federal government, according to an Annenberg Public Policy Center poll taken earlier this year. One in three Americans can’t name a single branch of government. More than a third of Americans can’t name any of their rights under the First Amendment. Multiple surveys find that Americans, particularly younger Americans, are increasingly ambivalent, or downright hostile, to free speech and democracy.
A plausible case could be made that something has gone wrong with the elites and that they have mismanaged the institutions and that is why most Americans are so badly informed about how their government works and the values that it is founded on. But Goldberg doesn't do anything more than vaguely gesture in that direction. But it's worse than that. As I've often said before, the first direction people jump tells you a lot about what they really think. The first jump Goldberg made here was not to point out what is wrong with the elite but to point out what is wrong with the masses.

Why? Part of the answer is that you can't dwell on the problems with the elite without giving the devil, or Trump, his due. He lists these faults of Trump: "his rhetorical contempt for free speech, his ignorance of basic constitutional facts, his addiction to drama and ratings, his personalization of every political question and conflict, and his uncanny ability to bring out the same qualities in his biggest detractors". Fair enough, but he the exact same faults in Barrack Obama and Elizabeth Warren, you know the elites who started this whole chain of bringing out "the same qualities" in their "biggest detractors".

I think the deeper problem is that Goldberg is an insider and insiders cringe at the thought that the people might represent something important.

Look how he interprets current divisions.
Even as knowledge of, and commitment to, our system of government has been eroding, partisan loyalty has radically intensified. Some studies find that partisan identification is now at least as predictive of behavior and attitudes as race or gender. As we lose our old meaningful attachments, we find new ones in shallow tribalism.
Eroding?  That tells you a lot about how Goldberg thinks the elite have failed. He thinks they didn't do a good enough job educating the people. This is the sort of attitude he used to mock, and rightly. Does Goldberg really think the differences between partisans of the left and partisans of the right is just "shallow tribalism"? Sorry, Mr. Goldberg, but this is where I get off.

All government is flawed but there is a fundamental difference between the kind of government and culture you find in California or Cook County and what you find in the red states. There is a huge problem with seemingly well-intentioned  legislation such as net neutrality that is actually designed to create opportunities for graft and that would be almost certainly be anything but neutral. It isn't just bad legislation, it's bad legislation designed to undermine the very values that have made the west great.

Ultimately, I get a queasy feeling that Goldberg agrees with Barrack Obama. He only likes institutions and social media when they bring people together. Compare this,
With Goldberg,
Throughout American history, institutions outside of the government — Alexis de Tocqueville called them “associations” — have played a vital role in binding people together and giving them a sense of meaning and rootedness. Our politics, both national and local, were always downstream of these institutions.
There is a certain surface level where both men are right. Most of the time, that is what you want institutions outside government to do—think of the frontispiece of Leviathan . Any working nation must unite. But you don't just want people to bind together. Hobbes and George III both wanted that. You want them to bind together around something good and beautiful like, say, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. A lot of us are convinced that the left in the west not only no longer believes in those ideals but is actively hostile towards them. This isn't a shallow tribalism but something worth fighting for.

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