A conservative Roman Catholic whose twice-weekly columns seek a middle ground in today’s polarized politics, Ross Douthat grew up in New Haven and the surrounding area and now lives in the city’s East Rock neighborhood. The 40-year-old recently published his fifth book, The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success.
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You could live anywhere. Why Connecticut?
I went away to college, to Harvard, and then to Washington, D.C., after college, but I always liked Connecticut. My wife is from Ridgefield. We always intended to move back up here. We find New Haven to be a very livable city. There isn’t the frantic scramble for real estate and educational advantage that we were sort of expecting to face if we stayed in Washington, D.C. Then, finally, I like New England landscapes. I like the fall. I like faded industrial towns. I like taking my son, who is obsessed with pirates, to Mystic Seaport.
I understand your great-grandfather Charles Wilbert Snow was governor of Connecticut in the 1940s?
He was governor for approximately a month. [Laughs] Whenever we drive through Hartford and we see the [Capitol] dome, I make sure to tell my kids once their great-great-grandfather ruled supreme. They sort of roll their eyes at me. [Charles Wilbert Snow served as governor of Connecticut at the end of 1946 after Gov. Raymond Baldwin resigned to fill a Senate seat and until James McConaughy was inaugurated in January 1947.]
Since you live in New Haven, Sally’s or Pepe’s apizza?
Pepe’s. But I would have said definitively Modern before we moved back to New Haven. Since we’ve moved back, I maybe tilt a little more toward Pepe’s.
Let’s talk about your new book. Why did you write it?
Part of my job is trying to step back and figure out what is going on in the bigger picture, what is the actual state of America and Western civilization. Why is it that we are at the peak of technological accomplishment, wealth and power and yet people feel unhappy and disappointed with how things have turned out?
Why are we decadent?
We’re decadent because in the last 40 or 50 years you’ve had a convergence of several different forms of stagnation and decay that basically feed on one another. Since the 1960s, we’ve had economic growth slow down. We’ve had our political institutions slowly cease to work as well because of a combination of their age, changes to the country and political polarization. Over that same period, people have started to have dramatically fewer children, so population growth has slowed down. This is the part that’s hard to prove, but I think is a real phenomenon: We’ve also gotten stuck in cycles of cultural repetition where we have a hard time moving beyond the big cultural forces of the Baby Boom era, so we make the same superhero and science fiction movies based on the ideas that were new and fresh between 1940 and 1975.
Who or what is to blame?
[Laughs] I don’t think there are villains in my story. I think that instead I would say that decadence is a pretty normal phase to go through. It is pretty normal for societies that have achieved a lot to run out of ideas, run out of room to grow, get rich, get comfortable and get old.
In your book, you downplay the vitriol of online debate, saying it’s more playacting than real. Tell me about that.
One of the challenges of trying to write about American politics right now is that, like all journalists, I exist heavily on the internet. There’s, I think, a real struggle to figure out how much of what goes on on the internet is real life. I think right now there’s a clear way in which it diverts energies from both more dangerous but also more constructive things.
Returning to decadence, your book proposes two ways out: one is a revival of space travel. Why?
I think human beings at some deep level are conditioned to say, “What do we do next?” And when you don’t have any kind of physical frontier left, it removes a pretty big possible answer. And it raises ultimately very profound questions: What is all this for, the stuff out there we can’t get to?
That appears to dovetail with your second way out, a religious revival.
I think there’s a connection. I think there’s a basic commonality to moments of religious ferment and moments of scientific dynamism, which is that they are both driven by a sense that the universe has secrets that can reveal themselves to human beings. They’re driven by a sense that our minds are capable of grasping realities beyond ourselves.
What are you going to do next?
I am under contract to write a book about my experience with Lyme disease. We moved first to my wife’s hometown, Ridgefield. I immediately got the most Connecticut disease, Lyme disease. It was terrible. The book will be sort of a mix of personal history and discussing the weird state of medical science around chronic diseases because I know a lot more about that than I did a few years ago.