Ross Douthat Emerges From the Depths
The New York Times columnist reflects on his political development, his struggle with chronic illness, and the future of conservatism.
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.”
But while his mother remained broadly progressive, Douthat embraced conservatism entirely. Inspired by Catholic philosophy and an adolescent desire to rebel against his milieu, he began to read National Review and The Weekly Standard. “That was the beginning of my long career as a contrarian,” he told me with a chuckle. “I would go to my dad’s office in New Haven and sort of wander around the neighborhood after school. And often I would wander into a now closed pharmacy and literally stand by the rack of magazines and read. The Weekly Standard and the political magazines were on one level and then Playboy and Penthouse were on the level above that. It was like teenagers sneaking peeks of forbidden material, and either they’re reaching for The Weekly Standard or they’re reaching for Playboy depending on their interests.”
Though Douthat did not read Ideas Have Consequences, The Quest for Community, and other, fairly intimidating classics of post-war conservatism until later in life, he began using the local library to devour new releases. “I was reading some combination of David Frum, Thomas Sowell, and early Dinesh D’Souza, before he became whatever he’s become today,” Douthat said. “I have a vivid memory of reading Robert Bork’s Slouching Toward Gomorrah, which spoke to a very specific kind of conservative pessimism that I had also picked up by osmosis in Evangelical circles.” By now a high school senior at Hamden Hall Country Day School, he had also acquired a fondness for the religious apologists of the 20th century, particularly C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton.
“The Aquinas level arguments for the existence of God to me are less persuasive than, say, reading Chesterton’s breezy, sometimes factually challenged outline of history from a Christian perspective,” Douthat told me. “I think personal and historical narrative accounts are really important for my thinking about religion.” At this point in his intellectual development, Douthat aspired to become a novelist rather than a journalist, and experimented with fiction writing in his spare time. But when he enrolled at Harvard College in 1998 and took classes in creative writing while pursuing conservative punditry, it became clear that his real talents lay in the latter.
Despite his New Haven upbringing, Yale never appealed to Douthat. “My mother went to Yale and was in the first class of women, and kind of hated or at the very least had very mixed feelings about it,” he recalled. “I didn’t have any sense of some legacy at a particular institution that I should follow. I wanted to go away for college.” An enthusiasm for the Boston Red Sox and Oxfordian architecture drew him to Harvard, which accepted him within its early action round of applications. His first campus visit, however, did not portend a gleeful college experience.
“My first impression of Harvard was when I went to Visitas for students who are enrolling in the fall, where you spend a weekend hanging out with existing students in dorms,” Douthat said. “It rained the whole time and I was miserable. I had skipped my prom to go to it, and I kind of felt like an idiot.” Nonetheless, he matriculated, and soon realized that his conception of Harvard’s role in public life was mistaken. “The extent to which the Harvard experience is about pre-professional formation for the American elite as opposed to academic and intellectual training, the business of creating the meritocracy rather than passing on the best that has been thought or said, was surprising to me. It’s a banal observation, but it was a pretty novel one to me as an 18- or 19-year-old.”
Today, the idea of Ivy League institutions as conveyor belts into the ruling class is ingrained in the American mind. Douthat recalls that this was less the case in the 1990s. “It was ingrained to some extent. Harvard was the No. 1 ranked school in the U.S. News and World Report rankings. And everybody knew that if you wanted to someday be a New York Times columnist, the meritocracy was how you did it. But the idea of the elite was something you could drop into and drop out of. It was a permeable thing; middle class people could just apply to Harvard and get in. Those ideas were important and meaningful.”
As a student, Douthat became a columnist for the Harvard Crimson and the editor of its conservative alternative, the Harvard Salient. His articles, which alternately observed the nature of elite formation and social climbing at Harvard and challenged progressive orthodoxies on campus, were marked by an irreverent streak not present in his contemporary writings. “I was more deliberately provocative as a college journalist,” he told me. “I was still finding my voice, and so my writing was a mix of imitation Richard John Neuhaus, imitation William F. Buckley, and imitation G.K. Chesterton, which maybe is not the right combination for reaching an audience of 20-year-old college kids.”
By graduation, Douthat’s style had matured, becoming more measured than polemical. Having abandoned plans to pursue an MFA, he took a job at The Atlantic as a reporter-researcher and relocated to Washington, D.C. It took little time for him to begin working on his first book, Privilege (2005), a memoir of his years at Harvard that aimed to provide both a portrait of elite life and a conservative critique of modern academia. In retrospect, Douthat considers the book to be a professional accomplishment, though he’s somewhat embarrassed by its candid descriptions of social blunders and awkward romantic encounters.
“I was trying to write a different kind of book than God and Man at Yale, which was very concerned with ideas and the intellectual climate on campus,” Douthat recalled. “I was trying to write something that covered social life in greater detail, and that meant writing about personal stuff. I thought I would enjoy the experience of that brutal honesty more than I actually did once the book came out.”
“You can’t control how people read a book, so passages that I thought were obviously self-deprecating were read as obnoxious in various ways,” he continued. “So I don’t know how well the book holds up. I think I still hold a lot of the ideas that I expressed about elite life, and so the critique of meritocracy is one I mostly still believe in and have carried through subsequent writing. I think it predicts decently well some of the failures of our meritocratic elite in the 20 years since. It may be that some of the ideas hold up, and even some of the writing. I’m just never excited to revisit it.”
In 2008, a year before he left The Atlantic for the New York Times, he released his second book, Grand New Party, in collaboration with Reihan Salam. Together, they urged Republicans to adopt a new policy agenda that could appeal to the working class while addressing America’s domestic challenges, such as the decline of the family, economic stagnation, and social decay in local communities. Today, it is only more necessary to confront these difficulties. America’s birth and marriage rates have plummeted, the opioid epidemic has ravaged the rural population, and close friendships are becoming increasingly unusual. But such cultural problems cannot be solved by public policy alone.
“Both political parties have adopted bits and pieces of our agenda,” Douthat told me. “We wanted more pro-family policies and both parties seem more interested in that. We wanted more focus on making working class jobs pay better and having more of them, and there’s some focus on that. But social revivals have to happen to some extent spontaneously. You cannot centrally plan a religious revival. For family stuff, you can lay foundations by making it easier to have and raise kids, but you still need people to actually make those choices themselves.”
“The underlying challenges are tough,” he continued. “And you have similar patterns in almost every Western country, regardless of the nature of its political economy. European countries have stronger safety nets and more pro-family policies in certain ways than we do. You have a pretty big gap between Thatcherite public policy in the United Kingdom and more left-wing economic policy in France. And yet these basic divides between the city and the country, between a decaying industrial heartland and knowledge workers in these rich hubs, show up everywhere.”
In 2020, Douthat released The Decadent Society, which examined many of these issues as the inevitable misfortunes of an America that has grown prosperous and indolent, devoid of ambition or innovation. “I started thinking about the ideas that became The Decadent Society in the early 2010s, probably around the Obama-Romney election,” Douthat said. “I was influenced by the sense from my own life of having lived through successive periods where dramatic things happened and there was a lot of talk about transformation, but various kinds of stagnation and gridlock always seemed to reassert themselves.”
Douthat cites the aftermath of 9/11 as an obvious example, in which conservatives and centrist liberals were broadly united in a crusade for justice that ended in political quagmire. “The same was true of the financial crash, where you had this supposed crisis for global capitalism, and then four years later you were running Mitt Romney against Obama, the most establishment versus establishment election possible,” he recalled. “All of this was happening against this backdrop of social decay in various forms, income stagnation, and technological growth.”
An obvious question, then, is whether a calamity as significant as the COVID-19 pandemic can liberate America from this decadence and provoke a cultural resurgence. The answer, Douthat believes, is uncertain, though he insists that there is cause for optimism. “The extent to which the coronavirus has encouraged some people to move out of the BosWash corridor and the Silicon Valley area, a dispersion of this overly concentrated American upper class, is one potential consequence that I think would be quite positive. The conspicuous failures of public education to handle the challenge of coronavirus is leading to an explosion in homeschooling, and new schools will probably be started out of this. The fact that we were able to develop vaccines in record time is obviously not decadent, and suggests that there remains, even under the weight of bureaucratized science, the capacity for swift breakthroughs.”
But conversely, the pandemic has compounded the challenge of social alienation. The restrictions imposed to manage the virus have left individuals sequestered in enclosed spaces, free to retreat further into virtual reality. In a society as self-sufficient as the United States, where teleworking, Netflix, and online delivery services are quotidian, it is possible for many to live entirely remote lives, irrespective of the consequences for human flourishing. Rates of loneliness were alarming before March 2020. Now, they have climbed to even greater heights, accompanied by a surge in anxiety and depression. Douthat hopes that the traumatic effects of COVID-19 will provoke a strong reaction against the lifestyle it has made commonplace.
“It could be an experience that drives people deeper into virtual space and some of the unhappiness that goes with it,” he observed. “But maybe not. I’ll be very curious to see, say, in five years the coronavirus’ effect on marriage rates, community association, religious practice, and other things that were in trouble before this era. There could easily be this response once we’re finally done with COVID where people say, ‘Let’s get out of our screens, out of our heads, build things again, ask girls out on dates again, and have kids.’ That’s totally possible.”
As for the future of conservatism itself, Douthat is encouraged by the right’s enduring intellectual diversity. But whatever new ideas may emerge from debates within the movement over policy and philosophy, he believes that implementing them through the corrosive persona of Donald Trump will only feed a continuing cycle of resentment and polarization. “Republican politics seem to be deeply divided between the cynical remains of the party establishment that just wishes things would go back to the way they were before Trump but doesn’t have a blueprint for getting there, and a populism that has some positive impulses but is easily consumed by a general paranoia and the specific, often pathological grievances of Trump himself. And I don’t think Trump is going away.”
“In most of my work,” he continued, “I have felt that in the early 21st century the social conservative side of things lost a lot of ground, and maybe a different economic policy mix from the one championed by conservatives in the 1970s was necessary to restore some foundations to American society, particularly working class life. But it’s complicated by the fact that I think some kind of strong economic dynamism is essential to American life. I think some kind of fusion is inevitable and necessary for a society like ours. I just don’t think that ideas hashed out in 1970 are necessarily the best way to think about what that fusion should look like.”
Douthat’s sixth book, The Deep Places, will be published in late October. His first memoir since Privilege, it concerns his struggle with the chronic form of Lyme disease, an illness not officially recognized by the CDC. Douthat says he contracted the disorder in 2015 while inspecting a home in rural Connecticut that he had purchased with his wife. The result was a period of immense physical suffering, which began with a swollen lymph node before escalating into pain throughout his body so extreme it left him unable to sleep. Douthat’s quest for treatment saw him consult countless doctors and experiment with an eclectic range of remedies. He hopes that the book’s insights into a condition often dismissed as fantasy will inspire practitioners to question the limits of medical knowledge.
“There’s a narrow purpose for the book,” he told me, “which is that the illness I have is highly contested, and therefore left untreated by lots of well-meaning doctors. It’s a case for the reality of this condition and an argument for how to treat it or think about treating it. But then I think that has wider applications that are relevant to, among other things, the coronavirus era. Where I think the limits of medical knowledge are real, even in our amazingly medically proficient society, are the exploration of the frontiers of medicine. With some of the weirder things I tried that readers can read about in the book, having a medical system that is open to that and is not always worried about the dangers of quackery is really important to medical progress and to helping people.”
“And it’s obviously a balance,” he continued. “As we’ve seen with COVID, a lot of the fringe treatments that people experiment with are deservedly fringe, and some of the people touting them are really cranks and confidence men. But the sense that capital-S science has all the answers and people just need to do what it says is wrong. You need a lot of willingness to experiment with things that are not at the start going to have some perfect double-blind controlled trial behind them. And getting smart people who believe in science to be open to those experiments and not worry that they’re all just the highway to Alex Jones land is, I think, very important.”
Although Douthat’s fight against the disease did not provide much time for spiritual self-reflection, it nonetheless deepened his faith out of necessity. “The experience of religious faith is much more primal,” he observed. “You’re desperate and asking God for help, and it’s all reduced to that. For me, what was really important psychologically for getting through those years was leaning on the hope that the experience of terrible illness is happening for a reason and that it’s something you’re being asked to go through rather than something that’s just been randomly inflicted on you.”
Even in the grip of unbearable anguish, Douthat remained committed to his work, producing columns with undiminished dedication. The ordeal has brought him an enhanced appreciation for the sheer blessing of life. “I have learned, at least, something about what it means not to yield,” he writes in the book’s final chapter, “to do what must be done even when it seems like your body is incapable of the task and your mind is brutally imprisoned.” Indeed, this accomplishment should be taken as an inspiration in our grim political moment. Just as Douthat overcame such brutal adversity, so too can we overcome our decadent malaise.