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The Modern World Disappoints Ross Douthat

Has society really become too comfortable and complacent?

Ian Gavan/Getty

That the world is a mess is a proposition with which the left and the right can both agree. Conservatives look around and see a heathen culture degraded by “cultural Marxism” and the tyranny of social justice; leftists, on the other hand, see a society brought to the brink of collapse by capitalism, patriarchy, and corporate greed. There is no shortage of explanations for why and when this downward slide began: It could have been the radical 1960s that kicked it off, or maybe the triumph of neoliberalism, or Roe or Reagan or Nafta or the internet. In any case, it is bad, and everyone but Steven Pinker seems to agree about that by now.

Avid Reader Press (Simon & Schuster), 272 pp., $27.00

The latest and widest-ranging account of this roughly 40-year decline comes from 40-year-old Ross Douthat, a columnist at The New York Times who in 2009 became the youngest opinion columnist in the paper’s history. Douthat has long been something of a black sheep in the Gray Lady’s editorial barn, distinguished from his colleagues not only by his interest in topics such as Catholic theology and the ethics of masturbation but also by his ability to generate readable prose and engage in critical thinking. It’s tempting to call his worldview “conservative” but more accurate to say it tends toward the starboard flank of the good ship Idiosyncrasy: The best Douthat columns stake out political positions that align with no particular voting bloc and wage philosophical battles whose relevance to the average reader is not immediately clear. He often sounds more like Boethius or Burke than he does like Bill Kristol, but he always sounds like himself. What other columnist, for example, could be expected to log on to Twitter and declare that “The Reformation is how you got Trump”?

In his new book, The Decadent Society: How We Became Victims of Our Own Success, Douthat takes an approach by turns sententious and statistical to argue that Western society has run out of gas. (Two of his previous books were calls for reform in the Republican Party and the modern church, but as neither institution seems to have improved as a result, he has moved on to society as a whole.) Regardless of your political persuasion, the broad strokes of his argument will be familiar, which is the point: The global economy is anemic, our domestic birth rates have plummeted, no one invents anything useful anymore, and Disney is doing too many remakes. It’s unclear what exactly happened or when, but between 1960 and 1980, all the material and immaterial gears in the developed world came to a grinding halt, and it’s unclear how long we have before the whole thing clanks apart.

In making this argument, Douthat draws on political thinkers from both the left and the right, adding a pinch of Piketty here and a flask of Fukuyama there to make a kind of pessimist’s stone soup. Having started with a standard account of how neoliberal policies have strangled the American economy, he fans out across the political spectrum, worrying on one page that corporate concentration has stifled the “gee-whiz spirit” of future Thomas Edisons and on the next that declining birth rates will further fray an already weakened middle class. He seldom engages in depth with any political thinker except to note that the thinker diagnosed a society in decline: The epigraph is Marxist intellectual Antonio Gramsci’s oft-quoted adage that “the old is dying and the new has yet to be born,” but by the second chapter, Douthat is asking us whether “the under-assimilated, half-radicalized inhabitants” of the Paris slums “are really the workers that [France] needs,” a sentiment of which one doubts Gramsci would approve.

In Douthat’s view, the defining feature of a decadent society is that it is so bland: He wonders wistfully whether our lives changed anywhere near as much between 1970 and 2020 as they did between 1920 and 1970, a span of time that delivered the television, the atomic bomb, and the moon landing. The answer for Douthat is a definite no. The last 50 years, he says, are but “a blip compared with the cascade of changes between 1870 and 1970 ... so that a single one of the nineteenth century’s greatest inventions”—running water—“still looms larger in our everyday existence” than Amazon or the iPhone. To show how far we’ve fallen since the first days of running water, he offers us three parables of contemporary failure—Fyre Festival, Theranos, and Uber, all potential iterations of the Next Big Thing that turned out to be unprofitable or fraudulent, mere facsimiles of innovation.

Douthat is dutiful throughout in noting objections and counterexamples—on any given page, one can find him admitting that “It’s not clear exactly,” “But then again,” and “But this pattern does not always hold”—but in the end he goes back to agreeing with himself that the past few decades have followed a “general decelerative pattern,” whose symptoms have appeared in every segment of society. Douthat hesitates to identify the principal cause of this decadence, though, perhaps in order to avoid committing to a stance that would alienate any faction of his readers: There is room here for both the enemies of cultural Marxism and those who see a specter haunting Europe, to say nothing of those who believe, as Douthat seems to, in something like a Hegelian spirit of the age. It doesn’t matter whether economic change begets spiritual change or spiritual change begets cultural change: The point is that at some point everything changed, and now it is more or less not changing.

The further Douthat stretches this overall something-is-rotten thesis, though, the weaker it becomes in its particulars. We can concede that the “decelerative pattern” might be to blame for the West’s faltering economic growth and its declining birth rate, but he then asks us to believe that the same pattern caused America’s ongoing political gridlock, having rendered our politicians unable to create “reasonably durable governing coalitions” that can pass impactful legislation. Obamacare’s patchwork set of amendments and shambolic rollout represent a “best-case scenario” for productive domestic policy, while military intervention and withdrawal are somehow equally ineffective. Where did this era of “political sclerosis” come from? We don’t need to have an answer to that, so long as we assume from the outset that we are in such an era: Once we do that, says Douthat, “we don’t have to actually choose between these varying explanations ... we can accept versions of them all”—except, apparently, any explanation that mentions gerrymandering, voter suppression, or the right’s ongoing campaign to seize the judiciary.

By the time Douthat gets around to popular culture, one starts to feel each blow before it lands. Our buildings are timid, our fashion is drab, our literature is weak, and then there are the dreaded remakes: Between the World and Me is a remake of The Fire Next Time, Lady Gaga is a remake of Madonna, and Star Wars is a remake of Star Wars. This attempt to smother us in examples ends up backfiring, though, and draws our attention to all the recent works of art Douthat does not mention: I found myself wondering what he thought of the apocalyptic film First Reformed, for instance, or Fleabag’s “Hot Priest,” for that matter. The claim that old art is better is available to any teen boy who likes Led Zeppelin but hates Lil Wayne; when presented to us in an account of societal decay, it is more likely than not to remind us that claims of stagnancy are themselves stagnant across history, from Ecclesiastes’s cosmic shrug to my own great-grandmother’s perennial lament that the family knish was better the last time we made it.

Far more memorable is the second half of the book, in which Douthat turns to the question of how long we can go on in this manner. “The watchword in all these cases,” he says, “is sustainability”—after all, the Roman Empire didn’t just fall, it declined and fell. He is most sympathetic to the notion that our Gramscian “interregnum” could persist for quite a while: Casting off the theories he has borrowed from the left and the right so far, he sketches a very Douthatian universe in which pornography, video games, and drugs have combined to produce a “tranquilizing effect” that prolongs our societal stasis. Tempted away from marriage by porn and dissuaded from shooting up movie theaters by Call of Duty, our behavior regulated by a “kindly despotism” of woke behavioral norms, we will all just keep watching Marvel movies forever. (He reframes Trump and his cohort of populists as “playacting extremism,” and the possibility of civil war he dismisses on the account that “the staunchest MAGA folk are seventy-something retirees.”)

Of course, there is always the possibility that climate change will render portions of the earth uninhabitable, devastate the global economy, and plunge the world into a “neo-medieval” dark age of violence and cultural isolation. As is a prophet’s prerogative, Douthat offers a few proposals for how the West might stave off such a crisis: He flirts with the conservative nationalism of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe but devotes more attention to the theocratic “national community” advocated by First Things writer Yoram Hazony, citing as potential models the state of Israel or the Mormon-dominated Utah. In the end, though, he believes the solution to our societal torpor lies somewhere beyond the ordinary world, and that we can only find it by either praying to God or going to space. If everything has gotten lamer and worse since the moon landing, he says, it may be that our society “cannot help tending toward decadence so long as it remains earthbound,” and it will take another celestial voyage (or divine intervention) to wake us up. His final exhortation is to go “down on your knees—and start working on that warp drive,” to pray and work on Star Trek space technology at the same time.

Douthat is hardly alone in thinking our salvation is out there among the stars—the Pixar movie WALL-E explored a similar idea—but his reluctance to identify a terrestrial solution to decadence arises from the same myopia that leads him to identify our present condition as “decadence” in the first place. In suggesting that this decadence might be sustainable, he remains too star-struck to ask for whom it is sustainable—after all, there are millions of people in the United States for whom the present does not feel in any way decadent, to say nothing of the billions worldwide who have yet to see the benefits of his beloved running water. Restricted immigration, public religion, and space travel are his prescriptions for a society whose main problems he believes to be a lack of community, vitality, and inspiration, but in truth, the main problem with our current condition is that while a small subset of the population frets about the impact of sex robots on romantic life, vast swaths of that same society still lack basic shelter and nourishment and, furthermore, that the latter condition makes the former possible.

If Douthat’s account ever managed to compass the extent to which global suffering is a structural precondition of upper-class stupor, he would be far more likely to see that the problem he describes in fact contains its own solution. Or as Brecht put it, “because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.”