Up With America
Our circumstances demand that we prioritize local action over global ambition.
In our exclusive interview with Ross Douthat from the May/June print issue, he describes America as nation marked by “stalemate, stagnation, and decay” without “a clear sense of both purpose and future possibility.” According to this definition of decadence, popularized by historian Jacques Barzun, America is less overindulgent than exhausted. The cultural and political capital accumulated over centuries of Western and American history has been spent down, and she stands naked before the cosmos.
Enter COVID-19, social distancing, shelter-in-place, high unemployment, trillion-dollar deficits, and plummeting markets. Can a decadent society survive a pandemic? More pressingly, can a decadent society witha corrupt ruling class survive a pandemic? The answer to that question hinges on the response of the American people.
In a recent episode of the Americano podcast at TheSpectator, Fox News host Tucker Carlson lamented that America is “the first experiment in secular materialism over a big population. It works great if your job is to supply people with enough calories. What it doesn’t do a very good job of is explaining death.”
And so we find ourselves at the beginning of the Easter season mediating on death (and hopefully resurrection) and pondering whether or not Americans have enough moral courage to face not only an existential crisis, but also the material crisis of tending to untold numbers of sick or unemployed countrymen.
Will we rise to the challenge? And if so, what role will conservatism play in healing the nation? When this magazine was founded in 2002, our editors echoed the wisdom of conservative luminaries Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk when they wrote: “We believe conservatism to be the most natural political tendency, rooted in man’s taste for the familiar, for family, for faith in God.” And its towards this disposition and the local institutions that support it—our churches, our neighbors, and our homes—that Americans can look for hope when faced with the realities of unemployment or death.
While Congress spent last month debating whether to include bailouts for Big Business in the stimulus bill, civil society and small businesses sprang into action to provide for the needs of their communities. Thankfully, Americans don’t wait for orders from the federal government before helping their neighbors—in this, we are exceptional.
At the same time, there are some challenges that local institutions simply cannot address in the face of a global pandemic. The cost of maintaining our permanent presence in the Middle East is no longer sustainable, and Congress has a constitutional duty to put the needs of American citizens suffering from coronavirus above our idealistic ambitions to make the world safe for democracy.
While trade and cooperation between sovereign nations provide many benefits, our political independence depends on maintaining a certain degree of economic independence for essential, particularly military and medical supplies. The pandemic provides an opportunity to map out the genealogies of our supply chains and prudently determine what needs to be made in America.
The necessity of securing our borders and establishing an orderly immigration system that serves our national interests is more urgent than ever before. The safety and happiness of the American people depend on our leaders having a clear sense of who is entering our country and why.
These issues—restraint in American foreign policy, prudential trade relations, and measured immigration policies—were also foundational to the worldview of our magazine’s founders and will prove the defining challenges of our generation in the years to come.
As America looks homeward during this time of crisis—just as a family might seek to secure their home, stock-up on essential supplies, and tend to the needs of their immediate relatives—we have a duty to serve our fellow citizens and practice charity towards our neighbors. None of this precludes peaceful cooperation with other nations and solidarity with those suffering around the globe. However, our circumstances demand that we prioritize local action over global ambition, and this presents a long overdue opportunity for national renewal.
The choice before us is clear, and the stakes are high. As Yoram Hazony wrote on these pages last week, “We’re all going to die soon anyway. The only open question is whether we act honorably or not while we’re here.” History will render a verdict on our actions. But today, while we still have life in our bones, let us rise and say: Down with decadence. Up with America.