Comfortably numb America
On Ross Douthat's melancholy sequel to The End of History
Trying to make sense of our world has been a challenge in recent years. With partisanship, passion, paranoia, and anxiety running high on all sides of every conflict, the temptation is always great to give in to hyperbole and alarm. Liberal and center-right opponents of populism issue a steady stream of ominous warnings about the precarious state of democracy, the imminent threat of authoritarianism, and even the danger of our polarization bringing us to the verge of civil unrest. Meanwhile, those favorably disposed to current trends tell more hopeful but no less exaggerated stories about the wholesale breakdown of establishment institutions and their failure demonstrating the need for radical reform or even political revolution.
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is the rare pundit who has managed to keep his head through the ideological turbulence of recent times — and his new book grows out of his characteristic equanimity and good sense. Instead of portraying the present as perched on a precipice or poised for a great leap forward, Douthat describes us in his title as The Decadent Society. (Although much of his focus is on the United States, he also applies the descriptor to Europe and the countries of the Pacific Rim.) By calling us "decadent," Douthat doesn't mean that we're succumbing to imminent decline and collapse. Following esteemed cultural critic Jacques Barzun, Douthat instead defines decadence as a time when art and life seem exhausted, when institutions creak, the sensations of "repetition and frustration" are endemic, "boredom and fatigue are great historical forces," and "people accept futility and the absurd as normal."
Douthat goes on to refine the definition:
Decadence refers to economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development. It describes a situation in which repetition is more the norm than innovation; in which sclerosis afflicts public institutions and private enterprises alike; in which intellectual life seems to go in circles; in which new developments in science, new exploratory projects, underdeliver compared with what people recently expected. And crucially, the stagnation and decay are often a direct consequence of previous development: the decadent society is, by definition, a victim of its own significant success. [The Decadent Society]
In a series of finely drawn chapters, Douthat piles up evidence of our decadence. Where we once journeyed to the moon and back, now our modest technological innovations keep us firmly planted on the ground (while mainly taking us on explorations of virtual space). We still manage to achieve economic growth, but at anemic rates and without more sustainable gains in productivity. We still reproduce, but not enough to replace ourselves. We recognize our problems but can't seem to launch political efforts of reform that might actually solve them. We use wondrous technical skills to create breathtaking works of popular entertainment, but they are testaments to nostalgia trapped in a feedback loop of sequels, samples, and reboots. We wage ferocious cultural battles, but they make no headway and merely recapitulate past conflicts in endless repetition.
The most illuminating chapter for my own thinking is the one in which Douthat analyzes politics and social media. Like many commentators, I've tended to view Twitter and other online platforms as playing an active role in fueling anti-liberal politics. But Douthat disagrees, and his contrary view needs to be reckoned with.
Instead of encouraging real-world authoritarian tendencies or fueling an extremism that could spark an actual civil war among polarized political factions, Douthat suggests that the internet may be having the opposite effect. Virtual reality, he claims, "encourages people to playact extremism, to re-enact the 1930s or 1968, … to approach radical politics the way they approach a first-person shooter game — as a kind of sport, a kick to the body chemistry, that doesn't put anything in their relatively comfortable late-modern lives at risk." Anyone who's been whipped up into a Twitter-induced fury only to step away from the computer and realize on a trip to the local market that the country seems to be getting along just fine will recognize something important in Douthat's account of our online lives as re-enacting "the dramas and tragedies of history … as a stage production, a costumed farce."
Drawing on the work of French theorist Jean Baudrillard, Douthat argues that those of us who spend much of our lives taking part in public life through the medium of our smart phones are immersed in a simulacrum of political radicalism instead of the real thing. Rather than edging toward a real-world civil war, "our battles are sound and fury signifying relatively little." Their very unreality is what makes them so "ferocious … performative and empty," with our "online rage" acting more like "a safety valve" than real-life political provocation.
If you want to feel like the West is convulsing, there's an app for that, a convincing simulation waiting. But in the real world, it's possible that Western society is really leaning back in an easy chair, hooked up to a drip of something soothing, playing and replaying an ideological greatest-hits tape from its wild and crazy youth, all riled up in its own imagination and yet, in reality, comfortably numb. [The Decadent Society]
That's a chilling image — and a very useful corrective to the tendency of journalists and other political obsessives to treat our online skirmishes as expressions or prefigurings of real-world clashes and struggles. Such instability might be just around the corner, but there's less evidence for it than one might think. As Douthat notes in the lengthy excerpt from his book that recently ran in the Times, the polarizing presidency of Donald Trump hasn't been marked by convulsive campus protests, urban riots, or mass rallies. By contrast, "there were more than 2,500 bombings across the continental United States in one 18-month period" during the early 1970s. Needless to say, that non-trivial level of civil unrest five decades ago didn't precipitate anything approaching a civil war or authoritarian repressions— and nothing even remotely like that real-world rate of political violence is taking place in the present. Which may mean Douthat is right to downplay the significance our virtual conflagrations.
Yet we would also be wrong to dismiss them entirely. If Marco Rubio had prevailed in the GOP primaries in 2016, if the Brexit vote had gone the other way, if right-wing populists weren't in power or ascending in popularity in Hungary, Poland, Italy, Germany, and other countries throughout the West — if, in a word, politics in liberal democracies looked today the way it did during the 1990s, with center-left and center-right parties placidly trading power and making micro-adjustments to public policy while enjoying high rates of public approval — then our online furies would be every bit as delusional as Douthat so effectively makes them out to be.
But of course that's not the way the world looks at the moment. Our digital battles may exaggerate reality, but they still reflect and are inspired by something very real about the world outside our apps.
Interestingly, one way to describe the populist insurgencies taking place around us is to say that they're a rebellion against the decadence of the post-Cold War world — the sense that history came to an end in 1989, with all significant ideological disputes resolved and politics reduced to the fine-tuning of liberal democratic government. Francis Fukuyama's own high-level punditry on the subject was actually far more ambivalent than it's usually credited with being. Although Fukuyama argued that liberal democracy triumphed over communism because it was more capable of fulfilling humanity's material and spiritual needs than any other political and economic system, he also worried with uncanny prescience that a world in which liberal democracy was the only available option could be marked by boredom, repetition, and sterility — and that the intolerable character of such decadence could inspire anti-liberal movements that aimed to restart history once again.
Douthat's book can be read as a melancholy sequel to Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man that confirms the author's darkest predictions but without endorsing (or seriously wrestling with) any of the concrete efforts going on around us to overcome our own malaise by breaking away from decadent liberalism — whether it's Donald Trump's MAGA presidency, the Catholic conservatism of Poland's Law and Justice Party, Marion Maréchal's National Rally in France, the National Conservatism spearheaded by Yoram Hazony, or Viktor Orban's anti-liberal and pro-natalist populism in Hungary. Given that Douthat is a conservative who longs for renewal, rebirth, and revitalization — for an end to the decadence he thinks plagues us — it's surprising that he has so little to say about these efforts in the book. (American writers who share many of Douthat's assumptions and concerns — Patrick Deneen, Rod Dreher, and the people in the orbit of First Things magazine — have been much less reticent, and much more explicitly hopeful, about these developments.)
What Douthat gives us instead is a concluding series of alternative scenarios for political, cultural, and economic "renaissance" — "Eurafrica," "The Return of Paganism," "A Western Islam," "A Christian China." The discussion is interesting, but it feels oddly disconnected from reality, a bit like a retreat into fantasy.
That doesn't make The Decadent Society any less valuable as a diagnosis of our distinctive shortcomings and dilemmas. Douthat sees a lot, and far more than most of our less profoundly discontented commentators. That makes him an excellent pundit — maybe the best of our moment. But in his new book he also avoids a forthright confrontation with the political correlates of his own moral, aesthetic, intellectual, and spiritual dissatisfactions. In its place we find idle speculations about alternative realities. Which may mean that, for all its strengths, Douthat's book about decadence is more than a little decadent itself.