In conversation with Ross Douthat on his political evolution and the state of American politics, the word “pessimism” and its variations frequently arise. Yet the former Atlantic editor turned New York Times columnist exudes such bonhomie that discussing even the most concerning aspects of our current situation, from the splintering of the conservative movement to the collapse of community, is never dispiriting. “The fact that these arguments are happening is born out of failure and crisis, and the deep dilemmas of what I’m calling ‘decadence,’” Douthat told me in a Zoom interview when we turned to the debates between fusionists, post-liberals, and others who have consumed the right. “So that part is bad. But the substance of the arguments is good. It would be much worse if people were just reciting the catechism of 1979 over and over again.”
“A lot of the things that American conservatives imagine themselves defending have fallen on hard times in the last generation,” he continued. “And when that happens, you need people to think anew and go back a little ways to try and figure out what went wrong or what went right for a time and needs to be amended. Having those arguments go all the way back to the founding and before is totally fine.” Although our dialogue did not extend quite that far into the past, it did begin with the early 1990s, a time where the nation faced economic decline and an uncertain future after its victory in the Cold War. At that time, Douthat was a middle schooler growing up in New Haven, Connecticut. He acquired an appetite for politics while following the 1992 presidential election.
“That was such a fun campaign to watch,” he recalled. “It had such a hotly contested Democratic primary, and then George H.W. Bush went from appearing invincible to being beaten.” At that age, however, Douthat was more intrigued by the prospects of running a campaign and holding elected office than the intricacies of public policy. This was prompted in part by his parents, Charles and Patricia, who, though politically engaged, were hardly obsessive. “They were about as concerned with politics as normal, upper middle class educated liberal people,” Douthat said. “They read the New York Times, watched the evening news, and were strongly anti-Republican without being activists. When [Bill] Clinton came to New Haven during the Democratic primary, they went to one of the rallies. But it was a world long ago and far away where you could be a partisan Democrat and that didn’t mean you were spending all your time on the internet being fixated on politics.”
But Douthat’s parents were deeply religious, and shifted moderately to the right while exploring varieties of American Christianity in the years after the election. After a period of attending Pentecostalist and Evangelist churches, Douthat concluded this spiritual journey by converting to Catholicism at age 17, one year after his mother. “My parents’ politics didn’t change that dramatically,” he said. “But liberalism was already becoming more secular.” Before embracing Catholicism, the family subscribed to First Things, and initially read the publication for theological instruction rather than political commentary. “We were pretty skeptical of the more conservative politics of Richard John Neuhaus, who was the editor then. But over time that had an inevitable influence, the abortion issue had an inevitable influence, and if such a thing as pro-life Democrats still existed, my mother would probably be a pro-life Democrat today.”