Therapists of Decline
In a haunting recent essay, Sam Kriss writes that “we are living in an age of ambient unwellness.” It’s a phrase I’ve been thinking about a lot. Our institutions are unwell, and we are unwell. Our mania about productivity and safety veil our fearfulness, our intuition that we must outrun our collapse, or be consumed by imminent death and decay. Our politics reflect our “unwellness,” and this includes political opinion on the right and the left. As Patrick Deneen recently considered the pessimism of the left, I want us to also consider a different kind of therapeutic pessimism on the right.
Our “age of ambient unwellness” is so pressing and pervasive, it would be surprising if we rational souls weren’t looking for some kind of therapy. Deneen noted that conservatism is generally premised on a narrative of decline, and so I want to interrogate the way right liberalism has generated a curious kind of therapy for a generation that can’t let go of liberalism. I want to reflect briefly on three different kinds of conservative therapies of decline, exemplified by Ross Douthat, Benjamin and Jenna Storey, and Rod Dreher.
Ross Douthat’s intellectual journey has been fascinating to watch. From his undergraduate days as the token reactionary at Harvard College to his now-established role as token conservative at the New York Times, he’s grown accustomed to living in enemy territory. Whether by cast of mind, or by necessity, he’s learned to write in a subjunctive mood—things might never change, things might be otherwise. He uses typologies, hypotheticals and counterfactuals not only to aid a deeper understanding of complex issues, upon which he prides himself, but also as an armored suit to protect himself against the darts and arrows that inevitably fly from every side.
No one can deny his intellectual gift for explaining distressing conservative views to elite liberals. He communicates social-conservative priorities in ways I admire and find salutary, especially in defense of preborn persons or in his underrated but extremely important columns on banning pornography. Yet even in those pieces I admire, there is always the pretense of considering all the ways in which things might not work out as we hope, or won’t work out well enough to be worth certain costs. His best book, on “bad religion,” can’t quite get us to “true religion,” and his book on the Church makes it seem as though things will only get worse. This makes him a typical therapist of decline: things are bad, but you must understand how much worse things can get. Douthat is superb at helping his readers cope with trauma and distress, but the principal aim is to help them to accept “the way things are.”
This is evident in his latest attempt to explain “What the New Right Sees,” which pivots off panic-attack pieces from left and right, and explains to readers what the New Right sees rightly. Sure, the New Right has an “alienated and radical vibe,” Douthat sympathizes with his reader, “but at the same time [New Right] analysis of our situation feels more timely, more of this moment, than many alternative programs on the right or left or center.” This is the sort of thing Douthat does incredibly well. He takes his readers’ common disposition and asks them to interrogate it a little without dismissing it. Several paragraphs later, after listing the merits of the New Right, he reassures his patient: “If you look at reality through the new right’s alienated vision, you may see the strange world of 2021 more clearly than through other eyes.” It both affirms his readers’ priors (their “alienated” vision) and helps them cope with the distress by an appeal to the virtue of empathy. Despite their ascendance, their timely and accurate diagnoses of what ails us, Douthat’s patients should not be overly worried about “the younger right,” who, after all, might not be “destined for power or wise governance.” Indeed, readers are most of all reminded that the New Right’s political prescriptions are obviously wrong [edit: or as Douthat puts it, in what amounts to the same, “unlikely to win”] even when their diagnoses are correct — so we can all be reassured that things will end badly for them.
Phew, the reader can breathe again.
Yet this sort of therapy is typical. It’s not only the formula required by the role Douthat plays at the Times, it’s also typical of how conservatives have imagined their role within the American liberal order for a very long time.
Though less well-known than Douthat, the Straussian power-couple professors Benjamin and Jenna Storey are more representative of the most typical form of conservative therapy: Things are bad, but if we just return to our Founding principles, things can get better.
The Wall Street Journal’s Barton Swaim prefaced his Weekend Interview with the Storeys by noting that “liberalism is in trouble. . . . I mean liberalism in the wider, classical sense—a view of government and society embracing free markets, representative democracy, individual freedom, strict limits on state power, and religious neutrality.”
Despite our discontents over liberalism, however, the Storeys reassure readers that liberalism really isn’t the problem. Early liberals like Montaigne practiced an “immanent contentment” which eschewed “grand principles along which society might be reordered.” That was possible, the Storeys argue, because people were already formed through their strong attachments to “churches, localities, professions and families.” Liberalism “worked” because of those “forms.” People are now discontent with liberalism, they say, because they’ve lost the pre-liberal sources which made liberalism a philosophy of means and not ends.
The “therapy” they propose is not to abandon liberalism, but to restore the institutions upon which liberal order depends: churches, localities, professions and families. As the Storeys put it, “when private lives have broken down—families dissolved, localities less important, religious life absent—liberalism’s framework institutions no longer make sense.” It’s a strange version of the No True Scotsman Fallacy: Liberalism works well everywhere and always until all the common goods liberalism depends upon are deracinated and denuded of purpose.
The therapy they counsel is rooted in a bald contradiction: For liberalism to succeed we must recover the preliberal order upon which its success depends. And it doesn’t hold up to contact with reality. For example, we know that wherever churches embrace liberalism in their religion or their politics, they decline. We know that localities are crushed by the power of economic liberalism, we have seen what liberalism does to labor unions, and what its view of human sexuality, marriage and children does to families. The reality is that liberalism undermines the very goods that right liberals say liberalism depends upon.
Instead of asking whether an anti-teleological liberalism might actually deprive churches, localities, professions and families of their proper form and purpose, they simply think that the problem can be solved by reading “great books” and a return to good manners. Instead of asking why liberal order tends to produce disorder in souls, right liberals just throw up their hands waiting for souls to be transformed by all these traditions, deemed to be magically prior and immune to political order.
This sort of therapy promises an impossible recovery through heroic individual progress, but ironically this makes us passive, realizing the very impossibility of it. It is designed to help us think that the thing most undermining our sources isn’t a threat to the wellsprings of our health. While ostensibly denying the inevitability of decline, it practically ensures inevitable decline save some massive revival of individual faith in the invisible hand — er, I mean God.
After recovering “the pre-political sources,” the Storeys reassure us that liberalism will be just fine. If we just can rebuild our “mediating institutions,” put on ties and put down social media, we’ll all finally see that Montaigne’s “immanent contentment” view of liberal order works all right. Yet the “pre-political” is one of those unexamined shibboleths of right liberalism that pretends politics is downstream of culture, when in fact, it ensures the opposite, and makes us powerless to think well about the coherence of common goods. Though the Storeys lament “the current wave of disorder,” they cannot see that the cure they prescribe is what has brought us to the age of ambient unwellness.
Rod Dreher’s influence on conservative therapies is distinct from Douthat’s talk-therapy and from the Storeys’ nostalgia for an American “liberalism” that sits pretty with all its “pre-political” sources. Indeed, Dreher has distinguished himself as a tremendous chronicler of liberal ills. Like Douthat, he is willing to stare down the decadence directly, but unlike Douthat, he often advocates for purer therapies that take into account the mood of his generation.
One obvious way of reading The Benedict Option is as a typical conservative treatise on decline. The prognosis is devastating—nothing will survive the acids of liberalism, get ready for things to get much, much worse. The only hope for Christians to retain their way of life is by some sort of “strategic retreat.” For some years, Dreher’s therapy actually looked like a real break from liberal order. He gave birth to the idea of little Benedictine-esque communities of work and prayer that would one day rebuild civilization after liberalism had laid waste to all of it. It’s romantic in both the bleakness of diagnosis and the idealistic and ever-distant hope for our political future. But it fit the mood of conservatives whose Reaganesque optimism had been dashed by reality, and sold extremely well as a result.
More recently, Dreher has revealed another way to read his work. I don’t mean as a therapist of decline—he’s always been the quintessential type—but rather as the flipside of the sort of right liberalism that utterly depends on the “little platoons” of “pre-political” civil society. Consider his recent, surprising attempts to pivot from the narratival perch of St. Francisville, Louisiana, to playing in the sandbox of international power politics in Central and Eastern European countries, giving keynotes on “national conservativism.” Amish means to Orbanist ends, perhaps?