Given Baylor University’s recent history of sexual assaults and administrative indifference, New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat’s visit to discuss public decadence must have struck at least some locals as ironic. However, those of us attending his public conversation with Baylor humanities scholar Alan Jacobs at Truett Theological Seminary last week quickly learned Douthat’s definition of decadence differed from toga-wearing Roman senators gorging on grapes as Rome burned around them.
Douthat’s idea of decadence — subject of his next book — refers to what one might call a societal and political malaise that infects a people and their leadership. He described it in so many words as “drift, stagnation and repetition” and suggested the feeling of “being stuck,” even to the point of satisfying complacency among the people. Examples included China in the second half of the second millennium, the late Ottoman Empire — and the United States of the past several decades.
The antonym in all of this seemed to be “dynamism,” which Douthat quite accurately applied to the post-World War II years in America, ranging from the prosperity, optimism and innovation of the 1950s through our sustained race to land a man on the moon, along with vibrant social movements pressing enormous change. Since then, he argues, the United States has seen marginal innovations but only one of real significance — development of the Internet in all its various manifestations, some of which have allowed us to turn more inward for better and worse.
This is intriguing regardless of whether you agree. In some respects, it was mirrored in a piece we published last week by Washington Post columnist Helaine Olen that questioned whether America is even capable of tackling big problems anymore, given not only the political polarization that separates us but the elected politicians — particularly on the right — who clearly have been bought off by industries satisfied with the status quo, regardless of hardships suffered by everyday constituents.
And if you’re seeking a word to define that, it’s corruption.
What might surprise some folks is who surfaced in the Baylor conversation as possible catalysts to a renewed dynamic age in America — names that arose after Jacobs smartly reflected on John Adams’ famous quote: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” The quote begs our attention today as Republican lawmakers seek to cede forever significant Article I powers to the executive branch, forsaking the checks and balances bequeathed by the Founders and thus arguably paving the way for an American Caesar.
“Both Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are in very different ways kind of rebels against decadence in this interesting way,” Douthat said. “Like the appeal of Trump — let’s say the more positive appeal of Trump — is this idea of, ‘Well, we used to do big things in America.’ People laugh at Donald Trump’s Space Force, but that’s the best of Trumpism, this idea that, ‘Hey, we used to send people to the moon. What happened to that? Remember that? Let’s do that again. Why are our highways so terrible? Why can’t we build bridges anymore? Let’s get back to that.’ And the Green New Deal is basically the same impulse on the left. Why can’t we have [another] Manhattan Project? We had the Apollo Project. Why can’t we do the same thing and solve climate change in this big, huge national endeavor?’
“Now as a conservative, I think there are deep moral problems with the left’s vision,” Douthat said. “And as a Christian, I think there are deep moral problems with Donald Trump’s vision. So I don’t want to hold up either side of our politics as moral. I think they both fail John Adams’ test. But there are impulses, there are desires for something better that, even if they were perfected, would still run into these structural and institutional and bureaucratic realities. It’s not as simple as to say we have this system that needs a moral people and we don’t have a moral people anymore. It’s that we have a people who are disillusioned about government and skeptical of improvement and polarized into warring camps in part because the system, like the society as a whole, has grown old.”
Perhaps. So is decadence or dynamism evident in those politicians who today show no hesitation in gaming our constitutional system? What defines the many Americans so willing to surrender the Founders’ bold vision for a brash American Caesar who can fix anything and everything, even if the future might well unleash another wholly unhinged Nero or two in the bargain?
Bill Whitaker is Trib opinion editor.
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