An anti-lockdown, pro-Trump protester. Photo: Joseph Prezioso / AFP
Artillery Row Books

Decadence in the time of corona: A conversation with Ross Douthat

The New York Times columnist updates his arguments for a country rocked by pandemic and protest

Ross Douthat is one of the most interesting members of America’s commentariat. As an (increasingly rare) dissenting conservative voice at the New York Times, he writes on US politics and public life in a consistently provocative, thoughtful and heterodox fashion. At National Review, he brings that same sharpness to film criticism. Ross has a new book out — The Decadent Society: How We Became Victims of Our Own Success — in which he makes the counterintuitive but compelling argument that, for all the turbulence and chaos we are said to be living through, recent American history is in fact defined by stasis and sclerosis.

On economics, politics, culture and demographics, Douthat claims that things in contemporary America, and the West more generally, just aren’t as dizzyingly disruptive as you might think. Instead, they are decadent. And, according to Douthat, this decadence explain everything from the election of Donald Trump to the surfeit of superhero films made by Hollywood.

I spoke to Ross about the ideas in his new book, and whether or not he has updated them in light of the pandemic that hit since its publication. Here is an edited version of our conversation.

Oliver Wiseman: Let’s start with the basics which I think you need to lay out before the conversation can go any further. What do you mean by decadence?

Ross Douthat: I use the word to mean a period of stalling out, stagnation, drift, repetition, gridlock. Decay without collapse is one way to put it. And the argument is basically that this characterises the Western world, and maybe even the whole of the developed world, in the 50 years since we landed men on the moon.

I follow different threads. There’s an economic thread, where I think we’ve had an economic deceleration since the early 1970s. Growth hasn’t disappeared but it has become much more incremental and funded by much larger deficits than in the past. I argue that there’s been a certain amount of technological stagnation outside of Silicon Valley: a lot of progress in communications technology but not a lot of progress in other arenas. Then there’s been political gridlock and stalemate and decay. I think that’s the least controversial part of the argument, maybe. And then I think demographics —low birth rates and ageing societies — also factors into this. And finally, I argue there’s been a lot of cultural repetition where we have the same intellectual arguments, tell the same stories, remake the same superhero movies and generally are sort of trapped in the world created by the baby boomers and their revolutions.

You can get a little distant from 1975, but you always get pulled back towards it.

Okay. Let’s address the elephant in the room: the pandemic that has put all of our lives on hold.

I’ve heard about it.

You obviously wrote the book before the pandemic, but this feels a lot like the kind of catastrophe that might shock us out of this decadence that you describe. Have you published a book about decadence as the sun was setting on the decadent era?

It’s completely possible. And hopefully the book would still be interesting as a retrospective account, even if this was the jolt, the crisis, the tragedy that set things in motion again. But I think it’s much too soon to tell. Right now, all you can say is that the pandemic is a stress test for our decadent system. We’re finding out just how sclerotic our governments and public health institutions are, just how unstable our fragmented societies are when you put a lot of pressure on them.

Some places are responding better than others. I think that the core of the West, excluding Germany, has done worse than the periphery, which is interesting. The pacific rim and Eastern Europe have, in different ways, done better. Britain, the US, France, Italy — the core of the West — has struggled more. Maybe they’re actually less decadent than we are.

But I think it is quite plausible to see a future where this experience does jolt people into action, or create new political coalitions. There was this big essay that everyone on Twitter was talking about for a day or so by Marc Andreessen, which basically makes this argument. It says that we’ve been decadent, the pandemic is a wake up call, it’s time to stop being decadent and start building things again. That could totally happen.

At the same time, it’s also quite possible that it ends up pushing us deeper into decadence in certain ways. That you end up with more mistrust of government and disillusionment with public institutions. You get a continued consolidation: small newspapers fail, small colleges fail and you’re left with less dynamism in civil society than you had before the pandemic. And, in spite of some talk about the Covid baby boom, it is not going to do wonders for the birth rate, based on everything I’ve read. You can imagine a further retreat into the virtual than you have already. So I don’t think I’ve given up on the assumption that decadence will reassert itself once this crisis has limped to an end.

Protesters marching against racism and police brutality in Washington, DC. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Let me give you a more specific question on decadence and the pandemic, or two specific case studies. The first is the Black Lives Matter protests that we’re seeing in spite of the existence of a deadly pandemic. The other is their red-state mirror image: the protests to reopen and to be able to worship and work and so on. In both cases, you could just as convincingly argue that they are examples of decadence or examples of the end of decadence. We could be so stuck in our decadent society that we’re making stupid decisions and risking our lives for a culture war. Or we’re realising that some things are bigger than life and death. You could argue it in both directions. How do you see it?

My impulse is that the non-decadent society is the one that comes together to suppress and conquer the virus. The decadent society is the one that tries to do that for a couple of months, then quickly reverts back to a culture war and its competing camps and just accepts that another 100,000 or 200,000 people are just going to die. That is decadent.

But, as you say, I think you could argue otherwise. Certainly, I think that the protests that we’re seeing now around police brutality do represent a less virtual and more palpable form of political engagement than we’ve seen for some time. And to the extent that they are that, to the extent that they are people leaving the world of Twitter wars and virtual politics and actually trying to affect change in the real world, they do seem somewhat less decadent. But I think we won’t know until we have five or ten years of perspective. Then we can look at how different countries did handling the pandemic and we can also look at the result of these protests. If the protests end with a colour revolution in the United States where there’s some sweeping governmental change and reform under the next administration, that then we would say that they were a step out of decadence. But if they peter out with some marginal positive reforms to policing then you’ll have a huge gap between the rhetoric and energy of the protests and what actually happens in the real world.

That kind of gap, I think, is part of what I’m talking about when I talk about decadence: people have this kind of sweeping, catastrophic or utopian rhetoric around politics and then in the real world nothing seems to change.

So slam-dunk evidence of us escaping decadence in this pandemic would be that the government was incredibly ambitious and hired hundreds of thousands of contact tracers and poured huge amounts of public money into a vaccine hunt and so on. That’s what you’re looking for?

Yes. You’ve read the book so you know that it presents the United States at midcentury to the moon landing as a society with great capacity, as a society that could handle and take on collective projects — World War Two, the atom bomb, the moon landing and even civil rights legislation.

There are certainly conservatives who think otherwise and would prefer a federalist response to the pandemic where people endure and accept their own mortality. But I think that defeating a novel pandemic, suppressing it, minimising the casualties, and getting treatments and cures as fast as possible is what you would expect from a vigorous society. And that doesn’t seem to be what you’re getting from the United States at the moment.

And you don’t see the underwhelming response as a Trump thing? It’s an America thing? Do you think the response to the pandemic would have been meaningfully different with a different Republican president, for example, or Obama or whoever?

I think Trump makes it somewhat worse. The specific chaos and incompetence of his presidency, the way that he polarises, probably has cost the US some number of thousands of excess fatalities. But there is a lot of failure that has nothing to do with Trump.

The core failure of the American administrative state happened in the CDC and the FDA. In spite of what people have people have blamed Trump for, these are institutions that have had their budgets increase steadily over decades. They should have been in good shape to respond to a pandemic. Responding to a pandemic is literally the CDC’s job and they had a succession of bureaucratic botches at the beginning that were disastrous.

Or there’s the government of New York City and State, which are liberal governments. Their handling was, in its own way, as catastrophic as anything Trump has done. If New York had got its act together just slightly earlier, the US picture would look very different. I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that northern California, San Francisco, Silicon Valley — in certain ways a less decadent part of the American Empire — have so far seemed to do a better job.

The other post-publication development that we need to talk about is the successful SpaceX launch. You put a huge emphasis on space exploration in your book, so how do you make sense of that?

I say in the book that what SpaceX and Elon Musk, and other Silicon Valley billionaires, are doing in space is an important battle against decadence. It is a counterpoint to my narrative and the more it succeeds the more of a counterpoint it becomes. So I’m happy about the SpaceX launch and I think it’s a positive sign for America that we could carry something like this out.

The question hanging over it is similar, in some ways, to the questions hanging over the protests. Is this genuinely new territory or are we doing a kind of weird homage to 1968 and 1969, where we have a wave of protest and a space launch but the protests don’t have as big as sweeping political consequences and the space launch just gets us back to where we were? We haven’t even got back to where the Apollo programme took us, even though our technology is obviously much improved. It’s one small step against decadence, not yet one giant leap for the United States.

The SpaceX launch: Breaking new ground or reliving the Sixties? Photo: Jim Watson / Getty Images

I guess a lot of this could fit into what you describe as the West’s cultural decadence: a giant, real-world version of a Spiderman remake.

Yes, I think that’s the uncertainty. Is Silicon Valley doing yet another remake of the glory days of the US? If you had gone back to the 1950s and told people that we’ll get to the moon and then we’ll build a space shuttle and then they’ll explode and then 50 years later we’ll be really impressed that we’ve gone back into Earth’s orbit again, everyone would say that space was kind of a bust.

Let’s broaden things out a bit, and go back to the book. Reading it as a Brit, it’s impossible not to raise the objection that America has grown a lot faster than Britain and Western Europe more generally. America looks a lot less decadent from that point of view. Is that because those places are just really decadent and America is decadent?

I think so. In economic and demographic terms, Western Europe entered into decadence a little more fully and earlier than the United States. Basically you have a period after World War II of apparent convergence between Western European economies and the US in terms of growth rates, but somewhere between 1975 and 1990 that convergence stopped. And Europe is more egalitarian than the US.

I suppose I’d say that along with that larger story, there is also ways in which America looks somewhat less exceptional relative to Western Europe than it did 20 years ago. Those two things can coexist. It’s both the case that, on many of my indicators, Europe is more decadent than the US, and also that the US looks a bit more European in 2020 than it did at the turn of the millennium. It used to be that our birth rates were considerably above the UK and France and Germany. But over the last 15 years they’ve sort of settled into the same below replacement territory. We had a big surge of productivity growth in the dot com era, and our productivity growth has been better in the US, but still pretty lousy over the last 15 years.

On political sclerosis there’s been a convergence between the ways in which the EU and its relationship to member states make Europe a little less governable and the way America’s constitution and polarisation make the US ungovernable. I would call Europe more decadent than the US, but part of the book suggests that American exceptionalism looks a little less exceptional than it once did.

Again, reading the book as someone from across the pond, I’m struck by how it fits into a lot of debates on the right in America at the moment. There’s a school of thought in American conservatism that actually argues for a much more European kind of conservatism, and even explicitly repudiates American exceptionalism. It talks about a kind of traditional conservatism that places less emphasis on the enlightenment rights and liberalism that American conservatives have generally talked about. I’m interested in how that all fits in with your decadence thesis. Are they a response to decadence or a symptom of decadence?

My cheap and easy answer is that it’s a little of both. I think you had a kind of novelty in conservatism in the UK and the US. Reaganism and Thatcherism both represented a departure from more traditional forms of conservatism, more so arguably in the UK than the States, because we have a longer libertarian tradition. And those programmes succeeded, in so far as they could succeed, and then sort of ran out of gas. I’m not sure if this part applies in the UK but, having run out of gas, you have in the States a kind of zombie Reaganism: a ‘tax cuts forever’ kind of Republican politics that no longer speaks to a lot of the problems in contemporary America.

That’s why you have a lot of conservatives here casting about for an alternative. There are some plausible alternative strands of conservatism that have a little more in common with Europe, that are more organicist and place more of an emphasis on tradition. I guess my own view is that, while I share a lot of those impulses personally, I think that the evidence from Europe is that that kind of conservatism is in a permanent ebb. It needs some more dynamic elements, some kind of programme that makes it more than just a custodian of, you know, rural life and nice vicarages.

I’m not sure what that dynamism is or should be. You have politicians in the US who are trying to put different pieces together and putting more of an emphasis on the family and the nation but then also arguing for a 19th-century-American style industrial policy. You have those attempts to mix and match. I’m not sure they’ll work, but the impulse is right. The conservatism of Roger Scruton can’t transform post-conservative societies without some other element that has yet to be discovered.

Perhaps someone like Peter Thiel gets close to that mixture?

I’m obviously indebted to some of his arguments in my own book, and he puts together some odd pieces. He’s a former libertarian who is now really interested in the uses of state power to drive economic growth. He’s also a nationalist immigration restrictionist and he’s a gay techno-futurist heterodox christian. So he’s a fusionism unto himself. It’s unlikely to be copied at scale, but it’s still suggestive of what younger conservatives are looking for.

I also want to ask you more directly about Trump and decadence. Is he both a luxury that we can afford, and also a response to the decadence?

I think if you look at the Trump campaign in 2016 and the State of the Union speech that he gave this year just before the pandemic hit, you have somebody declaring war on decadence and then claiming to have won a great victory. He’s basically saying ‘We don’t win any more. We used to be great. We aren’t great any more. Other countries are taking advantage of us. We need to bring back jobs and do all the things that the neoliberal consensus said was impossible. Build big factories, and all that.’

So in those ways he’s anti-decadent. But in every other way — personal, organisational, moral, — he clearly is a very decadent figure.

Peter Thiel: A fusionism unto himself. Photo: John Lamparski / Getty Images

You describe the cultural, economic, institutional and cultural decadence in your book. What is the thing that links them together? It’s not coincidental that they are all happening side by side. What is the common cause of these things?

The only single cause, if there is one, is prosperity combined with a kind of closing of the frontier. So we mix an extremely rich society with a map that’s been filled in, a world that (for good reasons) is no longer amenable to empire building, a space age that didn’t happen. I think that is a pretty reasonable context in which to expect a certain kind of decadence to set in.

But then the way it sets in is entangled, right? It’s not this one thing driving everything else. You have slow economic growth, which leads to less technological dynamism, which leads to even slower growth, which leads to political sclerosis. People have fewer kids in these contexts, which feeds everything else. So there are just a lot of feedback loops at work. That means that in an imagined renaissance, you have to imagine a bunch of interlocking things happening together: a wave of technological innovation, feeding a wave of social reform, feeding religious revival. And in such a way that you wouldn’t expect a historian 100 years later to pinpoint the one great choice that, you know, President Marco Rubio made to end the decadence. It would be a much more mysterious alchemy.

Given these feedback loops, and as you say in the book, there’s a scenario in which decadence doesn’t end. It just carries on and keeps feeding itself. What would be so bad about that?

Well, one answer is that certainly other things could be worse. And that it would be better to keep on in stagnation than to have everyone to die in a plague or have World War III breakout and kill millions of people. It’s important to concede that there are worse things than decadence.

But, I think, generally a decadent society would mean a slow dystopian drift where, without quite realising it, things that prior ages of humanity would have considered dark and grim just become accepted as normal. The shadow hanging over the decadent society is some combination of Huxley’s Brave New World and the fat people staring at their screens in the Pixar movie WALL-E. A world of comfort, ennui, pornography, suicide and opioids, in which nobody can quite articulate what is wrong with the society, but it ends up in a pretty dark place.

And also, presumably, a world that is more vulnerable when real threats do come along?

Yes. It isn’t inevitable that you become decadent and then the barbarians invade. But if you stay decadent long enough, the catastrophe or the barbarian invasion shows up.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Critic magazine cover