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Is America a victim of its own success? This New York Times writer thinks so

A Q&A with New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat

In this photo taken Wednesday, June, 29, 2010, a woman text messages while walking across the street in San Francisco. While using a cellphone while driving has triggered the most alarm bells and prompted laws in several states, experts say pedestrians are also suffering the consequences of mobile distraction, tripping on curbs, walking into traffic, even stepping into manholes as they chat or type while walking.
Ben Margot, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Imagine the reaction of an American from the 1900s being plucked from his farm and dropped in the middle of an average 1960s neighborhood.

The landscape would have been mind-blowing: television, automobiles, the polio vaccine — life completely reshaped by waves of technological advances and dynamic creativity.

Yet, fast forward another 60 years from 1960 to 2020 and it wouldn’t be so shocking.

Cars are faster but we’re still driving on the road — not flying.

Medical breakthroughs have helped millions — but we haven’t cured cancer.

Though the world seems to be changing at a dizzying speed, what if our frenetic activity of the last several decades is more illusion than progress? What if political gridlock and dwindling birth rates are jamming the gears so effectively that the entire nation is filled with “simmering discontent?”

That’s the argument of Ross Douthat, a New York Times op-ed columnist, in his new book, “The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success.”

Decadence, as Douthat explores it, refers to the stalling and stagnating of an advanced nation, spinning in circles rather than forging ahead.

The Deseret News chatted with Douthat about what this “comfortable disease” means for society, families and the future.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ross Douthat is a New York Times columnist and the author of “The Decadent Society.”
Josh Haner, The New York Times

Deseret News: Your new book is about decadence, which you explore in four categories: stagnation — both technological and economic; sterility — the falling birth rate; sclerosis — the painful functioning of our institutions; and finally, cultural repetition — our lack of creativity and ingenuity. How do these categories relate to each other?

Ross Douthat: There’s a deep entanglement between all of these forces. This is why decadence is hard to escape — you can’t single out one zone of reform and say, “Well, we need to do these three things in our politics and the rest of the society will get back on a firmer footing.” That said, you have these feedback loops, an economic slowdown makes people more pessimistic, and more skeptical of their government, which makes it harder for the government to institute reforms that might get you out of the economic slowdown, which discourages them from having kids because they’re concerned about the future. That slows economic growth further. We have a lot of different forces, an aging society with a gridlocked political system that are sort of piled on top of one another, which can make it hard to reform and escape.

DN: Are there places where the average American can point to and say, yep, that’s decadence right there?

RD: Washington, D.C., is a system that is, to use the subtitle of the book, a victim of its own success. It’s incredibly hard to do things in Washington, D.C. The last major piece of legislation, depending on how you count it, was either the Trump tax cuts, which were eventually just a version of the same kind of tax cuts Republicans always pass, and before that, the Obama health care bill, which passed 10 years ago and we still argue about it — nobody thinks it fixed the system. It’s been decades since we had a real deal to reduce the deficit, a comprehensive immigration policy, welfare reform and so on. All of these big political achievements, increasingly belong to the past.

DN: Sen. Mitt Romney and his recent actions in Washington have obviously generated a lot of buzz in Utah. What does that represent in a decadent, sclerotic view of government?

RD: Romney as a senator has been a more admirable and interesting figure than he was as a presidential candidate, in the sense that he has simultaneously been more of a critic of his party’s president, than most other Republican legislators, while also showing a lot more policy creativity in the kinds of things he’s supported. He joined with Michael Bennet, a Democratic senator from Colorado, to champion some pro-family tax and welfare reforms that are responsive to one small element in our decadence.

Romney is also a case study in why it’s so hard for politicians to be entrepreneurial and principled. He can only do this because he’s already run for president, he’s a rich guy with a million grandkids, he comes from a unique state with a unique religious background. Most politicians are much more inevitably creatures of the wider polarization and the wider system.

DN: Your colleague David Brooks just wrote that a strong extended family — not just a nuclear family — is needed for a healthy nation. How do Brooks’ observations about families relate to decadence?

RD: I thought that was a terrific and interesting piece, though inevitably I had a few disagreements with it. You have this model of family, this sort of two-parent nuclear family of the 1950s and 1960s that has clearly gone through a crisis. It hasn’t collapsed or disappeared, but it’s much weaker as a cultural force than it used to be.

But in its place, you haven’t yet seen clear new emergent forms of social organization. David is pointing to some possibilities, different forms of community, intentional families, extended families, return to larger kinship networks. But in fact, the story of the last 20 years is a story of people just sort of leaving the family behind all together, being less likely to get married, less likely to have kids, less likely to even have sex.

There was this period where social conservatives were terrified that the decline of the nuclear family would mean that everyone would be having kids out of wedlock ... and for a while that was the story. But the story of a more recent era is more about sterility, people with fewer kids, fewer siblings, weaker ties over all. That gets at the distinction I try to make in the book between crisis and decadence. In a crisis, bad things are happening often, but something is happening, there’s a sort of dynamism ... a sense that something is dying, but something new is being born. What’s more characteristic of decadence is this sense of sterility and futility. People can’t figure out how to fall in love and get married or how to build different alternative forms of community either.

DN: We like to blame smartphones for a lot of our societal ills. What role do phones and social media play in decadence?

RD: I don’t think it’s the sole cause of all our problems — speaking to you on a cellphone. Information technology is, in certain ways, the one great exception to decadence. Silicon Valley is the one clear source of innovation, a clear place of invention. We may not be going to the moon, but our technologies of communication and simulation are pretty miraculous.

It’s important not to get into a mode of despair and assume that everything to do with smartphones is just a plague, in fact they do amazing things. At the same time, there is a certain amount of evidence that they take people away from risk and even activity in the real world. You see this with teenagers. Teenagers in the age of cellphones are better behaved than my generation or than kids were in the 1970s. They’re less likely to drive drunk, less likely to get pregnant, less likely to use drugs, less likely to have sex, but they are also more anxious and more depressed and there’s a least some evidence that they have a harder time forming strong relationships with both friends and romantic partners.

DN: The Deseret News reported extensively about teens and anxiety a few years ago, and kids told us about the high expectations they had for themselves. So it was interesting to read in your essay in the Times, that now, instead of going to space, we’re content with making movies about space. How do you contrast these dramatic individual expectations with lowered societal expectations?

RD: The late cultural critic Jacques Barzun says that decadence can seem like a very active time. It’s not that people have lost all energy or ambition, it’s just that they can’t figure out what the way forward is and what the larger projects are that they should push that ambition into. You can have a society where, on a personal level, people are intensely ambitious. But the outputs of that society can be a world of people doing the same things over and over again and not figuring out how to move politics or society forward.

DN: So it’s like we’re all on this giant hamster wheel. There’s a lot of energy, but not a lot of movement.

RD: You know, that was one of the rejected ideas for my book cover: someone looking at an iPhone on a hamster wheel.

DN: How do you respond to criticism of your views that religion plays a major part in a healthy society and that it’s something we should be talking about? What role does religion play in a nondecadent society?

RD: I am a practicing Catholic, so obviously I have a bias toward religion. Every society is religious to one degree or another, in a sense that every society tends to have views about the meaning and purpose of life and the nature and destiny of human beings, and you can’t escape those views just by saying we don’t believe in God anymore.

In the context of decadence, strong religious ideas and strong religious movements come out of a belief that the universe is intelligible, that it has secrets that can reveal themselves to the human mind, and that there is a deep structure and purpose to human affairs that human beings should try to figure out. In that sense, the religious impulse is a lot like the scientific impulse — they’re often contrasted with each other and obviously the way we do science is necessarily different than the way we do religion, but there are ways in which real scientific creativity and real religious energy can actually rise and fall together. If you go back and look at the history of the space program, it was a very secular, scientific project in certain ways, but it was also pervaded by this kind of post-WWII Protestant optimism about America, culminating in astronauts reading Genesis as they orbited the earth and Buzz Aldrin secretly taking communion on the moon. The belief that the universe can be explored, and human beings have a special destiny within it, is actually central to any kind of progress.

DN: What can people take away from your book that might encourage them to resist decadence in their own lives?

RD: The good thing about decadence is it’s stagnant, but it’s not yet dystopian. Even in a decadent society, at the individual and communal level, you can have human flourishing and human creativity. There’s absolutely no reason why, in your own life, in a society that isn’t having kids, that you can’t have kids, in a society that is losing appreciation for great art, that you can’t appreciate or maybe even make great art yourself.

There is space under decadence for a lot of local and individual creativity — a counterpoint to the larger society, even if it doesn’t manage to achieve some wider cultural renewal.