Longtime readers know that I’m somewhat obsessed with declinism, the belief that America is in a state of serious, perhaps terminal national and cultural decline. Declinism is the father of catastrophism, the political idea that the nation is so close to the precipice that it’s one election away from extinction. In many ways, if you’re going to understand the appeal of the new right or the populist right, you have to understand the deeply felt conviction that America is on the brink.
My theory—articulated at book length—is quite different. Declinism and catastrophism are themselves far more dangerous to our republic than the trends or ideas that declinists decry. False claims of an emergency or of corruption or tyranny can make people respond as if they’re true. January 6 was a prime example of the damage that can result.
In fact, there is a lot of evidence that social conservative panic is particularly misplaced. Multiple vitally important indicators of family health have been improving, and many of those indicators have been improving for some time. The divorce rate has hit a 50 year low. Abortion is way down. Teenage pregnancy is down. Despite a hopefully temporary increase in 2020, violent crime is way down. Young adults have fewer sex partners. The percentage of children living with both parents has stabilized and even slightly increased.
It turns out that, say, thirty years ago—when our memories tell us America was more culturally conservative politically—many social indicators that social conservatives value the most were substantially worse than they are today. Yes, on a number of fronts Americans have more culturally progressive beliefs than they did, say, in 1990, yet by the tens of millions, they have more culturally conservative lifestyles than the generation before. It’s a phenomenon somewhat clumsily called “believing blue and living red.”