Comfortably numb America

On Ross Douthat's melancholy sequel to The End of History

A man with a phone.
(Image credit: Illustrated | ghoststone/iStock, Allusioni/iStock)

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."

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Damon Linker

Damon Linker is a senior correspondent at He is also a former contributing editor at The New Republic and the author of The Theocons and The Religious Test.