A Revolt Against Decadence—But Whose?
By NOAH MILLMAN
Ross Douthat’s latest column on the eve of the Iowa caucus about the Trump and Sanders “revolts” is onto something important – but I think he takes a right intuition in the wrong direction.
He begins by noting that 2016 is a funny year for a populist revolt, since the state of the union, while not great, is hardly catastrophic. “So what are Trumpistas and Bern-feelers rebelling against” he asks?
His answer is “decadence” (a key concept for Douthat these days), which he defines thusly:
Think of it as a useful way of describing a society that’s wealthy, powerful, technologically proficient — and yet seemingly unable to advance in the way that its citizens once took for granted. A society where people have fewer children and hold diminished expectations for the future, where institutions don’t work particularly well but can’t seem to be effectively reformed, where growth is slow and technological progress disappoints. A society that fights to a stalemate in its foreign wars, even as domestic debates repeat themselves without any resolution. A society disillusioned with existing religions and ideologies, but lacking new sources of meaning to take their place.
This is how many Americans, many Westerners, experience their civilization in the early years of the 21st century. And both Trump and Bernie Sanders, in their very different ways, are telling us that we don’t have to settle for it anymore.There’s something to this as a description of our present doldrums, but I’m not sure “decadence” is the best word for it – or, rather, calling it decadence elides a key distinction between state and society. Americans who are working are working longer hours than ever and have less job security; Americans who are in school are studying for longer hours and being tested more intensively; Americans who serve in our armed forces are doing more, and longer, tours of duty. That doesn’t sound like a decadent society to me.
That elision is, I think, what accounts for Douthat’s very peculiar peroration:
The disappointment and impatience that people feel in a decadent era is legitimate, even admirable. But the envy of more heroic moments, the desire to just do something to prove your society’s vitality — Invade Iraq to remake the Middle East! Open Germany’s borders! Elect Trump or Sanders president! — can be a very dangerous sensibility.
There are pathways up from decadence. But there are more roads leading down.If I understand him correctly, he’s saying to America’s voters: “beware of your impulse to vote for Trump or Sanders; it is coming from the same place as the impulse to invade Iraq or invite in millions of migrants.” Which is an odd conclusion, because neither the decision to invade Iraq nor the decision to invite in millions of migrants originated in any popular impulse, but were exclusively elite projects. Inasmuch as they served an emotional purpose as opposed to a practical one – and I think it’s safe to say that their purpose was at least partly emotional – it was to demonstrate the greatness (martial and/or moral) of the societies those elites dominate.
They may, in other words, be a reaction to a sense of decadence, of lack of purpose or meaning – of a need to do something to show their vitality. But the “they” in that sentence is not the people, but the elite.
And, most important, Trump and Sanders, in their different ways, are running precisely against that impulse.
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