by Bruce Thornton
The kernel of wisdom in the "declinism" impulse.
Country music legend Merle Haggard released “Are the Good Times Really Over” in 1982. Like his earlier songs “Okie from Muskogee” and “Fightin’ Side of Me,” Haggard was looking back to simpler times, before the sixties revolution began the two-bit Nietzschean “transvaluation of all values,” especially the disdain for traditional virtues like patriotism and faith. Progressives and leftists dismissed Haggard as a naïve hillbilly at best, and a white racist pining for his lost privilege at worst.
But the question in Haggard’s chorus still persists in our culture and politics, with prophecies of doom coming from both ends of the political spectrum. So, are “the good times really over”? Or is anxiety over declinism misplaced?
After all, worrying over decline is universal. In constitutional governments, much of it comes from the melodramatic hyperbole of political rhetoric. Ever since ancient Athens, prophesizing doom is a way to frighten voters into choosing one party and set of policies instead of another. After the disappointment of 1968, the left-leaning Democrats particularly turned to hysteria and hyperbole to salve their wounds and jump-start the “fundamental transformation of America.” Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and his son were all cast as portents of the coming doom: the destruction of civil liberties, the dismantling of the democratic order, nuclear annihilation, the creation of a plutocracy––these are just a few of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse predicted by Dems.
The ongoing attacks on Donald Trump are just a more hysterical and hyperbolic version of this age-old staple of electoral politics. From Robert Kagan’s “this is how fascism comes to America,” to Thomas Friedman’s looming “constitutional crisis,” bipartisan disappointment seasoned with class prejudice conjures up these signs of imminent doom that only the elite political class can ward off. Yet for now, the resilience of the Constitutional order has made theses Jeremiads mere sound and fury.
Another, more insidious response to declinism is to remind us how good we in the West have it. Popular explainer Steven Pinker reminds us just how much progress has been made over the last 150 years. Electricity, homes networked to treated water and sewers, antibiotics, pain-killers, communication and transportation technologies, governments based on consent rather than force, historically unprecedented levels of personal freedom, modern medicine, the wider distribution of wealth, the decline in inter-personal violence and large-scale wars have all created more leisure, more nutrition, longer, safer, and healthier lives, and greater freedom from the tyrannies of nature, prejudice, and irrational superstition. Even the most ardent declinist would not want to return to 1870, before these innovations began their development.
Yet just because declinism is a political cliché, and our material lives are so good, doesn’t mean that decline is just the product of electoral calculations, or ignorance of our good fortune, or our susceptibility to making judgments based on the flood of dramatic images in which we are daily submerged. Cultures and civilizations do decline and disappear, and the causes are not just material, such as depletion of resources or destruction by invaders. More important are the ideas and beliefs of a culture that weaken it from within, causing the loss of faith and confidence in who we are as a people, what we believe, and why we prefer to live as we do.
Policies and ideas that chip away at these goods, that denigrate the belief in the superiority of a life lived by those ideals, and that marginalize patriotic affection for one’s way of life, will lead to an insidious process of decline. At that point, as we see in Western Europe today, once the will to defend one’s civilization and to nourish its foundational goods is lost, political-social cohesion begins to weaken and eventually fragment. The process is slow, and its effects often not visible until the disease is well advanced.
The modern West displays numerous symptoms of this civilizational failure of nerve. Secularism has triumphed, sweeping away the spiritual foundations of our virtues, principles, and morals. Traditional wisdom, the “democracy of the dead,” as Chesterton called it, is scorned and denigrated by the “small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” Our history and its heroes are scrutinized for sins to be judged and condemned, weakening their role as exemplars of our cultural achievements. Martial valor and service have become the purview of a small portion of our citizenry, and satisfying the people’s desire for butter rather than guns is the highest goal of our political leaders.
The pleasures of the body, subsidized by our unprecedented wealth, have replaced the development of the mind’s critical judgment, leaving us prey to intellectual charlatanism and fads. Families are broken, leaving children adrift to be raised by the streets or popular culture. Nature is simultaneously worshiped as a threatened mother, even as its truths about sex identity and the costs of sexual license are cast aside. The future of our civilization is a matter of indifference to people who don’t want children and the sacrifices they require. The tragic truths of the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions have been replaced by the therapeutic cult of personal feelings and sentimental regard even for the enemies sworn to our destruction.
In short, what makes us human, our minds and the cultures they have projected into the world, has been reduced to the merely material. That is why the Panglossian argument of a vulgar materialist like Pinker is more dangerous than political rhetoric, and in the end is a distortion of creatures with minds and free will, who do not live by bread alone, no matter how various and abundant it may be. Without something more than the mere material, we cannot be truly fulfilled. We will retreat into sordid hedonism and cheap sentimentalism, living only for the self, averse to risk and sacrifice, and willing to barter away our freedom if only we can consume for one more day.
If history teaches us anything, it is that such a people will be overwhelmed by those who still believe that there is something, even if that something is evil, worth killing and dying for. Political speech that exhorts us to beware of bad ideas and to fight against their destructive consequences is not just a campaign device, but the first duty of a true leader who sincerely cares for his country and its future.
For decline, as the cliché goes, is a choice, not a destiny. Haggard ends his song with some good advice: “Stop rolling downhill like a snowball headed for hell/Stand up for the flag and let’s all ring the liberty bell.” Simplistic and corny, the jaded sophisticates no doubt think, typical of retrograde “deplorables.” But that doesn’t make it any less true than was Churchill’s rousing call after the Munich debacle for a “supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigor” so that “we rise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.”
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy's Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.
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