This review appears in the Summer 2021 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe to the journal, click here.


Who Rules? Sovereignty, Nationalism, and the
Fate of Freedom in the Twenty-First Century
Edited by Roger Kimball
(Encounter Books, 2020)

Most citizens, globally, are dissatisfied with democracy. The trend has been getting worse since 1995 despite the international elite’s increasing activism against this dissatisfaction’s supposed causes, including nationalism, Euroscepticism, racism, social injustice, inequity, conservatism, and populism. Fortunately, this pithy, accessible, and fearless little book containing essays by ten authors sets the record straight.

Roger Kimball, editor of the New Criterion, introduces the collection by contrasting the dominant narrative—in which progressives defend liberalism against hateful populists—with the unadmitted practice: in reality, progressives have imposed an “administrative, top-down, essentially illiberal form of governance.” 

Angelo M. Codevilla’s chapter offers the pithiest explanation of their project. Progressives want supranational norms, rights, and institutions to become sovereign. Progressives characterize any resistance as undemocratic, even if it is popular. Relabelling “popular” as “populist” denies the sovereignty of the people. Then progressives spin unelected administrators as “democratic” just because they oppose populism.

John Fonte exposes the academic-professional network of “transnational progressives” who claim to defend democracy by transferring sovereignty to higher levels. He warns that even “Republican politicians think we are still living in Francis Fukuyama’s dreamworld in which there is a unified democratic West, instead of today’s reality—a world playing host to a global struggle between democratic sovereignty and transnational progressivism.”

Michael Anton’s chapter gives the best historiographic explanation. Focusing on Alexandre Kojève, a Russian émigré later active in Germany and France, Anton explains that transnational progressivism evolved from Marxism by shifting the subject of redistribution from wealth to “privileges.” Western-ness, whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality, and eventually all things normative were problematized. Holdouts against the redistribution of privilege are labeled “deplorables,” “irredeemables,” racists, fascists, isolationists, or ignoramuses. Progressives cannot admit lower-class resistance, so they pretend that the lower classes have been misled by “populists.” Thus, progressives ignore decent reasons for the resistance, including, as Kimball writes, “tradition, local affection, and the subordination of politics to the ordinary business of life.”

For all the writers here, mass immigration undermines national culture. Most are brave enough to admit the national, religious, and material roots of Western culture. Codevilla notes that liberty was made practical by the early Americans’ “understanding and dedication to righteous living.” The virtuous deserve liberty. Most of the Founders pondered how to promote virtue: Thomas Jefferson saw virtues arising from hard-working, hard-surviving agrarian communities. John Quincy Adams agreed but also saw the early colonists as bringing virtues with them “from their mother country.” George Washington literally told Americans to be patriotic, to identify themselves as Americans first. But while they were Americans first, the Americanism of the early republic was (in order) British, European, Western, and Christian. 

Codevilla takes the most religious view of the American Founding. He notes that the Declaration of Independence paraphrases the Bible in order to justify rights. Two other contributors, Victor Davis Hanson and James Piereson, comment on the unifying benefits of Christianity but treat the Founding as mostly secular. Piereson refers to a “political religion,” while another of the authors, John O’Sullivan, describes America as a “creedal nation.” 

Piereson and O’Sullivan agree that Christianity and liberalism were necessary but insufficient for the development of national unity. Classical liberalism, a stage on the way to libertarianism, was made practical by a vast and rich continent. Yet individual liberty was, somewhat perversely, unifying. What O’Sullivan characterizes as “lived freedom” was a common experience.

Nevertheless, this common experience was insufficient to prevent civil war. Piereson starts the “forging” of the “cultural nation” at Abraham Lincoln’s retrenchment of America’s founding institutions. O’Sullivan adds the wars and popular culture of the 20th century. Piereson dates cultural decline from 1965, when the Immigration Act accelerated Third World immigration beyond legislators’ intentions. O’Sullivan dates the decline to the 1970s, when (as an immigrant from Britain to America) he realized that multiculturalism was denying a common culture. 

For Piereson, the next great decline occurred in the 2010s, when even Lincoln was toppled for being white and male. His chapter complains that identity politics, multiculturalism, and the comforts of “peace and prosperity” have produced a “post-national state.” Until recently, America was a balance of pluralism and unity. Now it is heading “toward pluralism without consensus, a nation-state without a national idea, and the ‘systematic organization of hatreds’ among racial, religious, regional, and national groups.” 

David Azerrad’s chapter focuses on identity politics. Azerrad recognizes the appeal of inclusivity, equality, and justice, but objects to the way these concepts have been employed on three grounds. First, “social justice, it turns out, always comes at the expense of certain core natural and civil rights,” such as freedom of association, free speech, and due process. Moreover, “diversity produces mind-numbing conformity—as is readily apparent in our identitarian institutions of higher indoctrination.” Finally, identity politics is hypocritical because it “invites us to embrace racism, but to do so in the name of anti-racism.” The inevitable result is mutual hostility among groups.

Victor Davis Hanson makes the book’s longest argument, starting with the undermining of citizenship and ending with the undermining of economic opportunity. Hanson blames multiculturalism for replacing fealty to the nation with any self-proclaimed ethnicity, religion, or intersectional identity. Multiculturalism does not benignly replace one identity with another: it denies the national identity that transcends all others. Legal residency is conflated with citizenship. Illegal and legal immigration are conflated in “sanctuary” cities and states. A driver’s license usually becomes the passport to voting. In San Francisco, illegal aliens can legally vote for school boards. Illegal status even has incentives, such as scholarships only for “Dreamers” who came to the country illegally as minors. And what’s the point of playing by the rules if human rights can be used to avoid the consequences of breaking them?

In addition to progressives’ belief in the “pre-citizenship” of immigrants, Hanson identifies the “post-citizenship” ideal of elite cosmopolitans. So-called “anywheres” claim to be restoring a world of open borders that existed before the advent of nation-states yet don’t recognize the different situation today. While resources once seemed limitless, free movement is now environmentally exhausting and socially destabilizing. Related to post-citizenship is “postmodern citizenship,” in which domestic elites adopt foreign norms. A good example in the past year are British protests against British police and other institutions inspired by the death of a black man in America.

Neoliberalism and Illiberalism

On the whole, then, Western citizenship no longer seems special. In the past, the West attracted those yearning to be free. Now the West has developed its own illiberalism: censorship, cancel culture, private frustrations of public rights (such as stores that refuse to sell anything related to guns), and politicized, racialized, gender-based economic opportunities. 

Hanson ends with the low chances of escaping debt and insecure employment for a dwindling middle class. Christopher Buskirk’s chapter focuses on these economic conditions. Buskirk blames bipartisan “neoliberal” market ideology for the destruction of “family, religion, order, belonging” and citizenship. Economic growth was prioritized at the expense of social and cultural values, producing soulless “laborers and consumers.”

The consequences have been disastrous. Pushing women into employment lowers the birth rate. Feminism damages heterosexual relations. Declining birth rates encourage immigration. But immigrants raise the cost of living, particularly housing. Then women must work more hours to maintain standards of living. The mathematics are clear: the cost of supporting an American family doubled within fifty years, while real incomes did not change.

Progressives prefer to focus on aggregate growth over social decline, but growth by itself is misleading. Conventional measures of prosperity don’t capture debt, frivolous consumption, or socially damaging activities such as outsourcing childcare or consuming pornography. In any case, economic growth should not be prioritized to the exclusion of everything else. Countries such as Japan put tradition and stability ahead of cheap labor. 

Even noneconomic measures of progress, such as rising life expectancy and higher graduation rates, don’t add up. More of us live longer in ill health, while others have seen their life expectancy sink in recent years. More useless degrees mean more debt. Declines in interstate violence were accompanied by huge increases in criminal violence. 

Daniel McCarthy seconds Buskirk’s concerns. Whereas Buskirk blames conservatives’ alignment with progressives on neoliberal policies for the plight of America, McCarthy—updating James Burnham’s argument in Suicide of the West—blames progressives for turning against the West in search of moral superiority.

The tone of the book is jaunty but, as Kimball writes, “the prognosis is, while not despairing, decidedly gloomy.” Fonte specifies no end to the transnational progressive war on “conservative, traditionalist, religious, and patriotic aspirations.” Azerrad foresees “no reason to believe that whites as a group will suddenly be viewed positively or forgiven for the sins of their fathers if their numbers decline to some arbitrary level or if they learn to hate themselves enough.” Piereson warns that without a positive view of its foundation, “the United States is at risk of blowing itself apart in the twenty-first century, as it did once before in the middle of the nineteenth.” O’Sullivan agrees that “the American nation is under serious threat of dissolution.” 

Where O’Sullivan is gloomy, however, Anton finds reasons for optimism. Some people will always prefer localism to globalism, and thus there will always be nations. He prescribes resistance in “many forms: spiritual, memetic, intellectual, organizational, political.” His top prescription is to publicize a “vision of a real nation with real communities, real commonalities, real bonds of civic friendship, and a real sense of who we are, and who we are not.” Similarly, Buskirk prescribes “reorient[ation] away from short-term materialism towards a restoration of high culture based upon mutual responsibility and strong social ties that rely upon the family as both the model for society and its basic building block.”

McCarthy wants “creativity from conservatives” but worries that it doesn’t come easily to them. Codevilla ends most hopefully. Populism is just the restatement of popular sovereignty against the progressive myth that “institutions” are sovereign. Yet this was written before the Democratic Party narrowly took control of all the elected branches of the federal government with an even more abstract transnational progressivism than the version Trump defeated in 2016. True liberalism and democratic sovereignty will thus wane for another four years at least.

Bruce Oliver Newsome is a lecturer in inter­national relations at the University of San Diego.