View from
The Center

In Response to a Worthy Critic

(Noah Berger)

“I will close here by thanking Senatore for his thoughtful critique of my review. I hope that this response convinces him that my ‘sweeping statements and feel-good-isms’ are not wholly without merit!”

Democracy thrives on debate, which is why I was very happy to see that Tony D. Senatore took issue with some of the arguments I advanced in my recent Merion West review of Joseph F. Johnston, Jr.’s book, The Decline of Nations. But to be constructive, democratic debate must not entail misrepresentation of an opponent’s argument. So let me begin by addressing Senatore’s deficient characterization of my—and Johnston’s—argument regarding the necessary social role of legitimate aristocracy. 

As I noted in my review, by looking back at the decline of Rome and Britain, Johnston made some incisive points regarding the importance of a socially legitimate aristocracy. This reminded me of Ross Douthat’s 2018 New York Times column, published in the wake of former President George H. W. Bush’s death, regarding the decline of the “WASPs.” Senatore writes that I desire “a return to this sort of elite rule” by the WASPs. That is not true. I wrote that while we should not desire a return to the racially restrictive rule by the WASPs, our contemporary elite would do well to emulate the WASPs’ sense of public duty—of devotion to the common good—a bit more. The WASPs carried out those duties imperfectly, but there was at least a recognition on their part that they owed something to the wider society. 

As Professor Michael Sandel writes in The Tyranny of Meritand as I pointed out in a review of that book for Merion Westtoday’s elites view themselves as true meritocrats. They see themselves as having earned their elite status all on their own. This somewhat false sense of meritocratic achievement leaves today’s elites far less ready and willing to use their status and resources (like money and influence) to advance the common good. So, the withering away of a sense of public duty and devotion on the part of elites is a problem, one with historical antecedents in Rome and Britain. We ought to attend to that problem. This is not to say that we should usher in a renewed era of WASP hegemony. That is ridiculous. However, it is to say that contemporary elites would do well to remind themselves that their success was not entirely of their own making and that they have a duty to give back. 

In sum, Senatore is right when he states that “there are at least two sides to the story” of tribalism. I wholeheartedly agree.

Senatore proceeds to argue that I fall prey to “the predictable and unimaginative view that all roads to the United States’ demise lead to former President Donald Trump, conspiracy theorizing on the Right, and populist nationalism.” Not true. I wrote that “the greatest threat to American self-confidence, prosperity, and national vigor” today is “the ascendant political mindsets that are premised on tribalistic ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ thinking (whether that be a cultural, racial, or economic ‘us’ and ‘them’).” Yes, the right-wing populist nationalism housed by Trumpism is part of this unfortunate phenomenon. That said, parts of the Left have also fallen prey to this sort of tribalism; consider the rise of anti-racism, for example. 

My point, which has been informed by writers and thinkers far more capable than I like David French and Francis Fukuyama, is simply that our cultural, racial, and partisan divides are growing a bit too strong; they threaten to overpower any semblance of shared Americanness, of civic unity. We are losing a common sense of “us,” a common sense of national identity—one that is expansive enough to account for our immense diversity in all of its forms but also substantive enough to really mean something. 

A core part of that substantive national identity must be a shared, national commitment to the traditional American creed of equal political rights, democratic republicanism, and constitutionalism. Robust free speech rights are most definitely part of this. This is why Senatore is absolutely correct to argue that those segments of the Left that are hostile to free speech and rational debate are cause for concern. Commitment to the American creed also entails a commitment to our constitutional processes, which is why former President Trump’s refusal to accept the results of a legitimate democratic election was grotesque. Again, one can turn to thinkers and writers far more capable than I to see this point: Notre Dame’s Michael Zuckert has pointed out how populism and constitutionalism are often in tension with one another. Populist energies must not be allowed to overrun constitutional structures and safeguards.

In sum, Senatore is right when he states that “there are at least two sides to the story” of tribalism. I wholeheartedly agree. As I recently wrote in The American Purpose, both the populist-nationalist right and certain segments of the Left are filled to the brim with ideological premises—primarily their willingness to conceive of particular groups, rather than individuals, as the fundamental building blocks of politics—that run directly counter to those of the American Experiment. It is incumbent upon both liberals and conservatives alike to stand up to their own side’s flirtation with such misguided modes of thinking. 

I will close here by thanking Senatore for his thoughtful critique of my review. I hope that this response convinces him that my “sweeping statements and feel-good-isms” are not wholly without merit!.

Thomas Koenig is a recent graduate of Princeton University and will be attending Harvard Law School in the fall of 2021. He can be found on Twitter @TomsTakes98

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