Conservative political analyst Ross Douthat launches strong arguments about the dreary present and likely future of stagnating Western societies. Could exhaustion spark a new renaissance?
Conservative political analyst, blogger and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat – author of Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics and To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism – finds little to love in contemporary society. He maintains that modern societies don’t progress. Their economies, politics and culture have become “decadent,” weary and static, without direction or optimism, says Douthat – and that was before COVID-19!
Writing amid political and cultural turbulence, Douthat poses questions about the future of affluent Western societies that no one – including him – could possibly answer. His conclusions may prove either dated or prescient or both.
Unsurprisingly, conservative outlets, pundits and authors gave Douthat raves. More interestingly, so did The Washington Post, which wrote, “It is a testament to [Douthat’s] singular skill and wisdom, then, that he has written so thoughtful and compelling a book…Douthat at his best – clever, considered, counterintuitive and shot through with insight about modern America.” Billionaire conservative Peter Theil said, “Well-timed…This is a young man’s book. Douthat can see our sclerotic institutions clearly because his vision is not distorted by out-of-date memories from a more functional era…Charming and persuasive.”
The 21st Century
Douthat cites the 1969 moon landing as inspiring vaulting confidence that didn’t survive the 1986 Challenger disaster. The author holds that modernity is associated with progress: People expect the future always to offer something new.
This resignation haunts our present civilization. Across human history, the most dynamic and creative societies have been almost inevitably expansionary, going outward from tribes and cities and nations to put their stamp upon a larger world.Ross Douthat
With the end of the space age, Douthat says, Western societies abandoned utopian political aspirations and redemptive religious faith, which led to decadence, including economic stasis, institutional deterioration, and a lack of cultural or intellectual vision.
The United States, Douthat asserts, is stagnating. Productivity is down, and people are leaving the workforce. The author takes a weird veer into birth rates, which he notes are too low to replace Western populations, much less expand them. Justifying this detour, Douthat avows that declining birth rates drive economic consequences as affluent societies age and older populations prove less innovative and future-oriented.
The author states, simply and accurately, that the US government that once won world wars can no longer perform basic tasks, like passing a budget. He recognizes that a system barely capable of passing legislation is vulnerable to authoritarianism. Douthat dents his credibility slightly by not identifying which end of the political spectrum seems poised to embrace that frightening turn.
In the past, Douthat says, younger generations vested in utopian visions and iconoclasm because they had the base of previous generations’ stability. A decadent culture, he believes, repeats itself and becomes a museum of the past. Douthat’s core thesis is that museum culture creates the sense that history has stopped and can only repeat.
The vital culture is a workshop; the decadent culture is a museum.Ross Douthat
Douthat points out that society sustains stagnation and decadence. He makes the astute point that people who trap themselves in pornography, video games or social media won’t do anything proactive – or extreme.
Douthat holds that 20th-century problems, including drug abuse, alienation, suicide, terrorism and extremism, became accepted norms in the 21st. He further suggests that Western democracies neutralize their rivals by recruiting their brightest people through high-end, highly skilled immigration.
Douthat notes perceptively that a renaissance will require an end to the right-wing versus liberals political deadlock. Even so, his view of liberals remains caustic, in that he believes that they cannot fulfill the needs and yearnings of ordinary people.
A real renaissance would look more like the birth of the modern world, when the Renaissance and the Reformation and Counter-Reformation and the scientific revolutions and the age of discovery were happening on top of one another.Ross Douthat
Douthat argues that technological, political and religious renaissances may occur simultaneously. He wonders whether decadence is an inevitable, unavoidable outcome. Douthat’s conclusion isn’t exactly profound – or all that helpful – given his position that in the absence of divine or alien intervention, humans must climb out of stasis on their own.
Ideologues from Douthat’s corner will enjoy his sometimes insightful and sometimes more-obvious conclusions about cultural movements and their discontents. Those far from Douthat politically and socially may discover talking points regarding broad cultural views that – given today’s self-policing social media – they could not discover elsewhere. Though Douthat may flatten complex ideas to make his points, he’s plenty smart. And whether you agree or disagree with him, you can always learn something from a smart person.
If Douthat strikes you as an original, vital thinker, you will enjoy his Bad Religion or Privilege. In addition to those titles, conservative readers will find food for thought in Patrick J. Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed.