Magazine January 27, 2020, Issue

The Populist Wager

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson poses with a sledgehammer, after hammering a “Get Brexit Done” sign in England, December 11, 2019. (Ben Stansall/Reuters)
Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West, by R. R. Reno (Gateway Editions, 208 pp., $28.99)

R. R. Reno’s Return of the Strong Gods is the latest book to present an intellectual defense of the transatlantic populist revival that includes Brexit and the election of Donald Trump among its triumphs. Rival accounts focus on economic concerns or disputes about sovereignty. Without dismissing these explanations, Reno focuses on the deficit of meaning that characterizes modern life.

By nature, Reno argues, human beings yearn to participate in groups. Such groups are not merely instruments to secure material goods. They are implicitly or explicitly devoted to shared purposes. 

Kinship offers a partial satisfaction of our nature by establishing obligations among persons and across generations. Affinities of blood, however, can encourage a sort of collective egoism. To prevent kinship from degenerating into tribalism, the family has to be embedded in other forms of association. Reno follows theologian Russell Hittinger in arguing that human flourishing requires simultaneous membership in three “necessary societies”: the domestic community of the family; the supernatural community of the religious congregation; and the civic or political community.

Unlike Patrick Deneen or Richard Weaver, Reno insists that “our troubles do not stem from William Ockham, the Reformation, John Locke, capitalism, or modern science.” Even so, his analysis resembles accounts of modernity as a process of “disenchantment,” accounts developed by 19th-century sociologists including Max Weber and Émile Durkheim. The title is an allusion to Durkheim’s statement that “the old gods are growing old or already dead, and others are not yet born.” 

Durkheim was an atheist who believed in the necessity of religion to social order and psychological health, but he was pessimistic that its historical centrality could be restored. His diagnosis is a curious premise for a Christian writer such as Reno, whom one might expect to proclaim the eternity of the living God. Reno’s point, however, is that unless we recognize older and more fundamental forms of the sacred, idols will take their place. 

These idols are the “strong gods” of the title. Apparently vindicating Durkheim’s prediction, they dominated history between 1914 and 1917. From Siberia to Seville, millions were sacrificed to the Molochs of destiny, race, and class. Rather than disenchanting the world, modernity generated new and even more-brutal sources of solidarity and meaning. 

The story of the European catastrophe has been told many times. Reno’s contribution is to shift attention to what followed. In his account, Western intellectuals recognized the problem but proposed the wrong solution. They should have looked for a way to cultivate the “necessary societies” that regulate and coordinate individual conduct. Instead, they challenged the very ideas of truth, duty, and the sacred. 

Reno dubs this challenge the “postwar consensus.” More attitude than formal theory, it involved a preference for criticism over dogma, choice over obligation, variety over homogeneity. In politics, these preferences took the form of negative commandments to be “anti-totalitarian, anti-fascist, anti-racist, and anti-nationalist.” The post-war consensus offered a highly detailed vision of what one should be against, but left to individual preference the question of what one should be for.  

Reno uses Karl Popper to personify this moment (Friedrich Hayek serves as Popper’s center-right counterpart). This is not a conspiracy theory: Reno acknowledges the limits of Popper’s direct influence. But he suggests that Popper articulated the basic assumptions of the post-war consensus more effectively than other figures did. In particular, Popper introduced the term “open society” as the antithesis of the authoritarian nightmares of the Nazis, the Communists, and even the ancient Greeks. 

While he doubts its stability, Reno is a qualified admirer of the post-war consensus. “Men do horrible things in the service of strong gods,” he writes. “Traditional societies justify radical inequalities, calling them expressions of sacred hierarchies. . . . Modern societies have inflicted unspeakable brutalities in the service of utopian ideologies.” For those reflecting on this dismal record, it was “understandable” to try to undermine the most powerful sources of solidarity. In place of potentially dangerous familial, religious, and political communities, the post-war consensus championed the disillusioned individual seeking personal fulfillment under governments that avoided any claims of transcendent purpose. 

The problem, Reno insists, is that this chastened approach did not work. For one thing, it is too thin and rationalistic to provide the meaning most of us crave. A few people might be satisfied by the lesser goods of peace and prosperity. Many more are attracted to forms of community that offer greater fulfillment because they demand more of their members. Although he opposes so-called identity politics as another kind of idolatry, Reno recognizes its appeal. If the “open society” does not offer citizens a strong political purpose, it is inevitable that they will seek it in race or sexual orientation. 

Second, openness can become an ersatz religion. Rather than a pragmatic strategy to avoid the worst, the refusal to make and enforce judgments is now seen as a virtue — perhaps the only one. Reno is not alone in recognizing that the terms “toleration” and “diversity” have become liturgical affirmations of a new moral orthodoxy. 

The open society has not failed everyone. Members of ethnic, cultural, and sexual minorities all have reason to think they are better off under the post-war consensus. So are those who possess the intellectual, financial, and social capital to shield themselves from the risks of unemployment, economic ruin, and isolation. This coalition of minorities and the well-off defines the modern Left, which is actually conservative in its efforts to uphold the post-war consensus.

Results have been less impressive for another, perhaps larger portion of the population in the U.S. and Western Europe. Especially since 1989, when the end of the Cold War removed external incentives for social cohesion, conditions have gotten tougher for those who depend on family, religious community, and the nation-state. They provide the core audience for the populism that increasingly dominates the Right, challenging the libertarian inflection of 20th-century conservatism. 

Reno is on the side of the populists in their challenges to both the Left and the libertarian Right. He admits that “Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán, and other populist challengers are not choirboys or immaculate liberals.” But at least they take on the plight of the economically, culturally, and politically squeezed. The real danger, he argues, is not the appeals to traditional morality, religion, and nationalism that provoke elite liberals to hysterical warnings of fascism. It is the refusal of any sacrifices to the strong gods, which invites them back in new and potentially violent forms. 

Reno’s populism is based on a strategic calculation comparable to the one adopted by architects of the post-war consensus. In a world devastated by an excessive devotion, they promoted disillusionment and restraint. In a society that fosters weak loyalty or reverence, Reno encourages the reenchantment of the world. “Deprived of true and ennobling loves,” he concludes, “people will turn to demagogues and charlatans who offer them false and debasing loves.” 

Despite its thunderous rhetoric, then, Return of the Strong Gods is an optimistic book. Reno is betting that the catastrophes of the 20th century were neither inevitable results of the modern age nor eternal lessons of the limits of politics. If not exactly anti-historical, Reno’s position is that we in the West should not worry about the recurrence of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, or the Gulag. Fixation on the monstrosities of the past is as distorting as confidence in the perfection of the future. 

There is an element of truth in this argument. Reno is right to remind us that the present discontents are remarkably polite by 20th-century standards. There have been isolated acts of violence by leftists, rightists, and the mentally disturbed. But organized paramilitary groups are absent. Compare the situation in the 1930s — or even the 1970s.  

Yet Reno is rather glib about the achievements of the post-war consensus and the dangers of upsetting it. Extraordinary prosperity (despite recent stagnation), the erosion of ethnic hierarchy, and avoidance of general war are no small things. It is possible that we can preserve these accomplishments without the trappings of the “open society,” but it may turn out otherwise. Without acknowledgment of the stakes, Reno makes his populist wager look like a safer bet than it really is. 

Most important, Reno says almost nothing about how the old gods are to be restored to their shrines. So far, there is little evidence that noisy populism has stimulated a revival of family, religious practice, or generous patriotism. In the absence of practical suggestions for cultivating such communities of love, Reno falls back on the importance of discussion: “Just as we need a national conversation about who we are, we need a sober conversation about what it means to be a man and a woman.” 

There is an irony in Reno’s appeal to conversation. Far from an alternative to the post-war consensus, invitation to conversation is its signature response to existential questions. Reno looks beyond the horizon of the open society but cannot really imagine an alternative. We are still waiting for the new gods to be born.

This article appears as “Twilight of the Idols” in the January 27, 2020, print edition of National Review.

Samuel GoldmanMr. Goldman is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University and the literary editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Quarterly.  

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