Over the summer, as statues fell and businesses burned across America’s cities, a joke buzzed around my Twitter feed: “Somewhere, an obscure Corsican artillery officer senses an opportunity.” The line captured the fatalism that’s crept into my more reactionary acquaintances: The country is doomed, our democratic order can’t save it, and the best we can hope for is some Napoleonic figure to rescue us from our decadence.
I’m not sure Ross Douthat is that figure. But he can aptly describe our state of desperation, and does so at book length in The Decadent Society: America Before and After the Pandemic. The new paperback released earlier this month is a revised version of the book that first appeared last year, just before the coronavirus upended life across the country. And yet even in this updated edition, Covid-19 hardly plays a role—perhaps the most damning indictment of our present situation. If a once-in-a-century pandemic can’t jolt us out of our somnolent decline, maybe nothing can.
That’s not to say the pandemic lacked the potential. Douthat asks in the introduction if it could “represent the return of history, the hinge out of an age of torpor, the spur to long-postponed reform and innovations”—his and presumably everyone's preferred outcome. Or, “like the plagues that punctuated the later centuries of the Roman world, will it be remembered as a crisis that ultimately deepened decadence, a revelation of problems that are beyond our capacity to solve, a shock to a sclerotic system that only made the system more itself?” He doesn’t give us a definitive answer, but the latter seems far more likely.
Consider the “Four Horsemen'' of decadence he describes: sterility, stagnation, sclerosis, and repetition. Since the pandemic began, America’s sterility problem has only worsened; Brookings estimates 300,000 fewer children will be born in the U.S. this year than would have been expected pre-pandemic. Another horseman, our culture's penchant for retelling old stories instead of creating new ones, is similarly unimproved. If anyone did spend their months in quarantine writing the next great American novel, we haven’t seen it yet—although we did get a four-hour-long recut of Justice League.
To be sure, the other two decadence indicators—economic stagnation and political sclerosis—offer some signs of hope. Goldman Sachs expects the economy to grow 8 percent this year, far faster than our typical 2 percent annual pace since the Great Recession. The rapid development of multiple effective vaccines shows our capacity for invention might not be so moribund after all. And the passage of a $1.9 trillion-dollar stimulus package proves our government can still spring into action when the voters grant their permission. As Georgia’s senate runoffs showed, elections still have consequences.
Yet neither of these horsemen have fully retreated. The eye-popping growth we’ll see this year will fade quickly once the economy recovers from the pandemic-induced shock. The stimulus bill will pad our pockets but doesn’t represent a drastic change in government policy; both parties have long preferred to borrow money and then spend it, if usually in smaller amounts. As Greg Ip of the Wall Street Journal put it, “Biden hasn’t so much changed the paradigm as turned the dial on the existing paradigm up to 11.” Thus even if we continue to build off these successes—generating mildly better medicine, providing moderately more economic support—life will improve but the country’s trajectory won’t really change. We may get better at sustaining decadence, but nothing since the pandemic began suggests we will overcome it.
And that seems okay. One of the book’s more compelling sections is titled “Stewarding Stability,” which presents a counterargument to Douthat's overall thesis. Geared toward “making the most of a prosperous stagnation,” this approach would acknowledge we are unlikely to return to the booming growth of the postwar period or embark on any grand, civilizational missions like the struggle against communism or the race to the moon. But what it lacks in ambition it more than makes up for with incremental reforms, promising a conscious effort to make normal people’s lives better.
The Douthat of the early 2000s might have been content with this; his 2008 book Grand New Party advocated this sort of melioristic agenda. But the Douthat of the 2020s sets his sights higher. “If we want to really escape decadence on our own, to transcend it for something longer than a season,” he writes, “we need to find a way to climb, to make a ladder to the stars, and to offer future generations of humanity a new reality to explore that’s more expansive than our beleaguered planet.” There’s something about conservative columnists and space. The late Charles Krauthammer also urged a revitalized space program—not for any materialist reason but, like Douthat, for glory. “The plain fact is that we are not doing this for the utility,” he wrote in a 2003 essay calling for developing the moon, “but for the romance. And that is reason enough.”
Maybe. As long as interest rates are low and our leaders treat money like it’s free, splurging on a mission to Mars doesn’t seem like a worse investment than mailing checks to childless Millennials who’ve been employed throughout the pandemic (though I do appreciate the cash). But romance notwithstanding, I don’t expect to ever visit the red planet or anywhere close to it. Next to the cold loneliness of space, our comfortably numb country doesn’t sound all that bad. The society at large may be decadent, but communities within it don’t have to be. At least on Earth we can grow our own gardens, tend to them, and wall them off from hostile environments.
But I could just be naïve, and I know many of my friends on the right find my complacency misplaced. If America’s rising street violence and ideological intolerance actually escalates into a cultural revolution, then I imagine the cocooned life I thought it was still possible to build might fall victim to our new Jacobins. In that event, I can only hope Napoleon arrives in time—probably not from Corsica, but not from outer space either.