Recently, I was asked to make the “pessimistic case for the future.” I present instead more of a “pessimistic take on the present.” The future, while imminent, is obscure. The present, by contrast, is knowable. This is also not so much a “case” replete with exhaustive evidence—there isn’t space for that, nor is there a need—as a quick tour through our present hell. No one who thinks “everything is fine” will be persuaded otherwise. Those who see the seriousness of our problems hardly need proof. Nor have I made any attempt to be evenhanded, much less philosophically detached. My account is perforce one-sided. I hope it is wrong.

“In conventional terms, the United States peaked around 1965.”

Trending Down for Two Generations

Think of the fortunes of the United States—if you will, of the whole West—like a stock-price chart. There will be a lot of ups and downs, positive and negative spikes. But zoom out and the trendline is clear. In conventional terms, the United States peaked around 1965. One may quibble over that date. Why not the moon landing? Victory in World War II or the Cold War? Fine. When do you think our political, moral, and spiritual health were at their peak? When was our power, prestige, wealth, cohesion, competence, and confidence—on balance and in the aggregate—highest? (For instance, gross domestic product was lower and infant mortality higher in 1965, but by those other metrics, we were healthier.)

Whatever date you pick, part of the answer must be: not today, and not recently. The great exception might appear to be the “Reagan Era,” which I might amend to the “Reagan-Clinton Era,” to capture both our emergence from malaise and our post-Cold War decade or so of unchallenged preeminence. This period was sold to us at the time, and interpreted by its partisans ever since, as the restoration of the American spirit, a burial of the twin albatrosses of Vietnam Syndrome and stagflation. In hindsight, though, it was one of those spikes on the chart. Most, if not all, causes of our pre-Reagan anomie have returned with a vengeance, and are accompanied by many more causes for concern.

The Constitution Is All but Dead

We Americans are supposed to govern ourselves via a constitution that rests on a specific understanding of natural right (right and wrong, good and evil, better and worse exist by nature) and natural rights (government’s job is to secure people’s God-given rights to life, liberty, property, etc.). The Constitution specifically declares and delimits the purposes of government and its powers, and it specifies how we the people choose the officers of the state, who are supposed to exercise those powers.

We still choose, sort of, but that hardly matters, because the people we nominally elect do not hold real power. And when they do, they often use it for unconstitutional ends. America’s real rulers are not the constitutional officers we nominally elect, and certainly not the American people, whom our understanding of political legitimacy asserts to be sovereign. They are, rather, a network of unelected bureaucrats, revolving-door Cabinet and subcabinet officials, corporate-tech-finance senior management, “experts” who set the boundaries of acceptable opinion, and media figures who police them.

Add to this the routine, repeated violations of our explicitly guaranteed rights—Big Tech censoring free speech, big cities denying the right of self-defense, the government itself violating the right to be secure in one’s person, home, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures—and it becomes more than a stretch to describe the United States as any longer a “constitutional republic.”

The Security State Has Been Weaponized

Arguably the two most alarming spectacles of recent times are the Russia Hoax and the federal government’s reaction to Jan. 6. Our intelligence agencies spied not just on American citizens, but on a presidential candidate and his senior-most aides, and then, after he won, on government officials. The FBI launched a phony investigation under false pretenses to prevent one candidate from winning the 2016 election and to lay the groundwork for his removal if he did. All of this was later uncovered. The guilty got away with it, and the agencies still have their budgets and all their powers. Indeed, the FBI was just given—with Republican votes—a $600 million raise!

As to the second, an unarmed, nonviolent protest (all four deaths were protesters, either directly or indirectly caused by the authorities) resulted in the largest (and still ongoing) manhunt in US history, widespread and ongoing pretrial detention, maximalist demands from prosecutors (up to and including “terrorism enhancements” in sentencing), forced confessions, and draconian sentences for minor crimes.

These same agencies—in particular, the FBI, and the Department of Justice—now routinely engage in predawn, no-knock raids and circus arrests before awaiting media (to whom time and place of said arrest have been pre-leaked) against the ruling class’s perceived enemies, such as those the Jan. 6 Commission would like to feature in its show trial. These are the kinds of practices that, when Eastern Bloc Communist tyrannies did them, the US government condemned. Now our government does them itself.

We Have Two-Track “Justice”

How the same offense is treated by our “justice” system depends on who’s committed it and, often, for what purpose. At the upper strata, compare the treatment of Hillary Clinton, James Comey, and Andrew McCabe with that of Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Steve Bannon, Carter Page, and Michael Flynn. Clinton illegally hid, and then deleted, her proprietary—and classified—communications from government records. Comey and McCabe orchestrated the Russia Hoax and lied about it. None of these three was even charged.

The latter five have all been hounded by the state—some convicted and imprisoned, all at least bankrupted and defamed. Their crimes, to the extent that any were even committed, were all much less serious than those of the regime darlings.

Compare the treatment of the Jan. 6 protesters with the total impunity granted to the summer 2020 rioters. One example: Two lawyers, literally caught throwing Molotov cocktails, were given slaps on the wrist. Meanwhile, Kyle Rittenhouse was charged with first-degree murder (one of six charges) for shooting two deranged thugs who were in the process of trying to kill him. All over the country, and especially in blue-ruled precincts, acts of self-defense will get you arrested, jailed, and possibly imprisoned. Meanwhile, in the Black Lives Matter era, so long as the perp is the correct race or acting in a sanctified cause, violence and arson are excused.

“In huge parts of the country, we’ve stopped trying to fight crime.”

We Can’t Even Punish or Deter Normal Crime

In huge parts of the country, we’ve stopped trying to fight crime. “Bail reform” lets dangerous criminals out of jail the same day they’re caught. Witness the psycho who lunged at New York’s Republican gubernatorial candidate with a knife. He was apprehended—and released that day. Granted, in that case, the feds did rearrest him. But all over the country, thousands of offenders are much luckier.

Bail reform assumes that offenders are caught in the first place. Which, in the “defund-the-police” era, many are not. Crime has spiked dramatically since 2020 (and had already been rising since the first BLM riots in 2014).

We may try to console ourselves with the observation that we’re still nowhere close to the crime peaks of the mid-1970s through the early ’90s. But even with the massive declines that followed, we never even got close to the negligible crime rates of the pre-1960s era. Worse, we appear to have entirely lost the will to try. Worse still, our elites have moved beyond mere unwillingness to fight crime and into an almost positive embrace of leniency. Our cities, which still haven’t recovered from being sacked in 2020, face ongoing gunbattles, random attacks, subway pushings, and beatdowns of the elderly that our elected and appointed leaders refuse to do anything about.

We’re So Blinkered by Ideology that We Can’t—or Won’t—Apply Obvious Solutions to Simple Problems

The same way we don’t lock up criminals because “racism,” there is almost no end to the sensible things we refuse to do, and the stupid things we eagerly do, because of ideology.

The United States is presently in the midst of our worst energy crunch since the 1970s. Instead of expanding supply, we are constricting it. Why? “Climate change.” But nuclear would generate energy without carbon emissions. The same people who say no drilling also say no nuclear. Why? Supposedly, because the plants themselves and the waste they generate are “unsafe,” though nuclear power has a near-perfect record in this and nearly all countries. (The real reason is to force everyone to don the hairshirt.)

Our drug problem is fueled by Mexican cartels that cross our border with impunity. But we don’t secure the border because “no human is illegal.” Monkeypox is transmitted at homosexual orgies. We won’t close bath houses because “love is love.” But we will close churches, gyms, and restaurants over Covid. That’s an emergency!

We Prioritize “Diversity” Over Mission and Performance

Ask yourself how long any complex system, much less a whole civilization, can last when it selects people for jobs, including the most demanding and important, on criteria other than merit.

To take just one example, the major airlines recently announced that their pilot corps are too white and male. To “solve” this nonproblem, the airlines have announced a diversity push. Now, obviously there are people of all races, and both sexes, capable of flying planes. But flying an airliner is also a complex job requiring a certain level of smarts and a certain cast of mind (calm and thorough). Not everyone has those things. Hence many who seek to become pilots wash out. Once the airlines start selecting pilots based on criteria other than competence at and suitability for the job, what is going to happen? You can guess. Now apply this lesson across our entire society, because this is happening everywhere.

Our Military Doesn’t Win

I suppose we should be grateful that the military hasn’t—yet—been turned against the populace. But it has been turned into a woke social-justice welfare program, a kind of student union/sociology department with guns. It cares more about pronoun usage than fulfilling its mission. Although it isn’t implausible to think that its mission today is more about pronoun usage than the application of force in the national interest.

The last US military operation that fulfilled all its tactical and strategic objectives was the first Gulf War (1991). Since then, we’ve engaged in failed humanitarian missions (Somalia, Haiti), failed nation-building missions (Bosnia, Kosovo), and democracy wars that do not produce democracy (Iraq, Afghanistan). We could not even leave Afghanistan without humiliating ourselves.

The military is also, unsurprisingly, incompetent. The Navy crashed four ships in 2017 alone. Last year, a $67 million F-18 Super Hornet was literally swept off the deck of an aircraft carrier. It is not just the Navy; examples abound across the rest of the armed services. And, to be fair, the Navy faces the most significant operational challenges. But given all the failures of the last thirty years, one cannot be comforted even by that valid excuse.

“Overall competence in nearly every field of endeavor has dropped.”

Nothing Works Anymore

That subheadline is an exaggeration, to be sure. But not by much. And it’s not just the military. Overall competence in nearly every field of endeavor has dropped in recent years.

Everyone has stories of things that used to work well, even flawlessly, that no longer do. For me, it’s public transportation (especially commuter trains), civil aviation, and ordinary customer service. It’s well-nigh impossible now to hire competent people for almost any job. If you’re a boss, telling your workers to actually, you know, do their jobs is to face mutiny. Insisting on standards is racist, sexist, and oppressive. Enforcing standards is Nazism. The whole country is becoming the DMV.

The People Are Corrupt

This is a terrible thing to say, and I wish I didn’t have to, but perhaps the above is because the people are corrupt? I don’t mean “on the take.” I mean simply less capable of functioning as productive adults. Rates of nearly every pathology that saps the human spirit and degrades basic performance are at all-time highs, or close.

People will quibble with this and insist that this or that bad metric is down since—choose your year. But has the United States ever had a widespread heroin problem outside jazz clubs? Has our overall obesity rate ever been this high? The ubiquity and vileness of modern porn are surely unprecedented, if for no other reason than the technology to mainline the porn 24/7 has never before existed. This corruption perhaps explains not just why so many slack off at work (assuming they even show up), but more importantly why our supposedly republican form of government no longer functions as such.

Pop Culture Is Filth

I borrow the phrase from John Derbyshire. It would take almost no effort to establish that ours is a tin age. No memorable, much less great, works of art have been produced in decades. A generation ago, we at least used to have decent, wholesome entertainment. Top Gun: Maverick aside, now we don’t even get that. Replace porn’s exposed, interacting genitals with less explicit vice, and you have the ubiquitous streaming that is keeping people on the couch (and getting fatter) all over America. All our media, even—especially—the ads, promote debauchery and degeneracy.

Religious Faith Is All but Dead

Some will no doubt bristle at the assertion. Relax, I don’t mean you. But as a historical matter, religious faith is today at a low ebb in the United States and across the West. Church attendance is way down, along with genuine belief. This is a disaster spiritually and materially. A moral and religious people is more likely to get and stay married; beget and rear children; hold jobs, even boring but necessary ones; participate in civic life; stay out of trouble; save money and build wealth (however modest); and do all the other things that make for long, happy, productive, fruitful, fulfilling, moral lives. Lack of religion tends to produce the opposite, and hence fuels the dismal trends discussed in this dismal chapter. This is the oldest lesson in the book.

Marriage and Other Social Bonds Are Desiccated

People don’t get together anymore, or they do much less. Marriage rates are down, and the average age of marriages is way up. Divorce may be down from its 1980 peak, but the rate still hovers well above 40 percent. Deep friendships are rare. Even loose associations that bring people together for frivolous fun are uncommon. We are increasingly a nation of atomized loners.

“One of the core metrics of the health and confidence of a society is its birth rate.”

Birth Rates Have Cratered

One of the core metrics of the health and confidence of a society is its birth rate. This is not to say that a society must have a birth rate above x (whatever x might be) to be considered healthy. But it is to say that if birth rates are consistently below replacement, that society is in some fundamental way unhealthy. By that metric, not just America, not just the West, but every advanced or developed society is not healthy. There is something about the experience of modernity and prosperity that makes people not want to have children. Nothing bodes more ill for our future than this.

Young People Face Dim Prospects

This is not the place to go into the deep spiritual roots of our antinatalism. But we should recognize one prosaic cause: Kids and houses have gotten really expensive, while career and monetary prospects for younger people have crashed. Therefore, falling birth rates are to some extent a rational response to crummy economic reality.

The ratio of average home prices to average incomes is, in many parts of this country, 10-to-1, making it impossible for young people to buy without a parental subsidy. That’s before you even consider the question of school districts—the key deciding factor for actual or would-be parents—which pushes prices up much higher. Adjusted for inflation and purchasing power, salaries are much lower than in the postwar middle-class heyday, when it was possible for the average man to own a home and support a family on one income. Maybe that was always going to be a short-lived Elysium. We’re certainly far from it now.

The Middle Class Has Been Hollowed Out

The pinch the youth are feeling economically is the same pressure from the same forces that have hollowed out the middle class across the board. Financialization, outsourcing, automation, technification—all these trends and more have taken a formerly middle-class country and turned it into a bifurcated state in which winners increasingly take all and “losers” get scraps. The middle class is shrinking numerically, and as a percentage of the population. Plus, the standard of living enjoyed by what’s left of our “middle class” is much lower than it was a generation, and especially two generations, ago.

Income and Wealth Inequality Are off the Charts

Not since the Robber Baron era, and by some metrics not even then, has American wealth been so concentrated at the top, and so sparse in the middle and at the bottom. This presents a few problems. First, it’s felt to be unfair, which increases resentment among the have-nots. Second, just as Aristotle warned, it increases the arrogance of the haves, who behave in more and more insolent and high-handed ways. Third, it makes our republic unworkable. The American Constitution needs a thriving, numerically and proportionally large middle class in order to function properly. Without that, its elegant machinery cannot work as designed. The whole apparatus becomes a tool and shield of oligarchy.

We’re Increasingly Owned and Governed by Foreigners

And not necessarily even a domestic oligarchy, which would be bad enough. But in our folly, we’ve allowed foreigners to buy up huge numbers of our key assets: land, houses, companies, infrastructure, and so on. One reason home prices are so high is that we let not just foreign financiers, but generals in the Chinese military (no joke) buy up our real estate at will.

Many of the most powerful people in the country—CEOs, high government officials, prestige professors—were born elsewhere. This is one of those things one is allowed to notice only if one approves, a phenomenon I call the “Celebration Parallax.” Yet it’s reasonable to ask: Why should we assume that those born elsewhere have the best interests of the United States or its people at heart when they assume the top jobs in our country? It’s obvious what’s in it for them. What’s in it for us?

Corporate Power Is Greater Than in the Pre-Anti-Trust Era

We’ve also delegated many properly political tasks and powers to private corporations. A handful of tech and media monopolies control nearly all public speech. Since they are “private companies,” they are not covered by the First Amendment. But try getting your message out without them. Or when the banks won’t let you have an account. Or when any other company whose services you need denies you access for political or ideological reasons. We are ruled at least as much by corporate behemoths whose interests and dogmas are identical to the state’s as by the state formally understood. And over whose power we have just as much control—which is to say, none.

Our Economy Is Fake

This should be one of the bright spots in this little litany. GDP is, after all, way up, both in the aggregate and per capita. And yet. We may leave aside, because already mentioned, the extent to which all those gains have accrued to the top, and/or to foreigners, and also the declining purchasing power, and hence standard of living, of a middle-class wage.

What is our economy? Those who benefit from it extol it as an “information” or “service” economy, but it is better described as the “paper” or better still “pixel-and-byte” economy. What about making real stuff and doing real things? That still happens, but the remuneration for providing for human necessities, much less facilitating human flourishing, is paltry—almost insulting. This is hardly an original insight, but the greatest rewards in our system accrue to those who produce the least—who merely manipulate pixels and bytes. None of that answers any real human need or aspiration. Our fake, financialized economy looks and feels jury-rigged and liable to collapse. When it does, what then?

The Universities Have Become Evil

The most important institutions in modern America are the universities, and they are all evil. They are supposed to be repositories of knowledge. They are supposed to inform participatory republicanism by educating citizens capable of self-government. They are supposed to seek, find, and communicate truth.

They do none of this. Instead, they invent and push corrosive lies. They indoctrinate students to hate their country and civilization. They use centuries of accumulated prestige to tear down millennia of civilizational standards and achievement. They are basically satanic temples bent on destroying everything and everyone around them—except, somehow, themselves and their donors.

K-12 Schools Teach Our Kids to Hate Themselves and Their Country

Worse, the universities’ corrosive self-hatred has trickled down into primary education. Chris Rufo’s heroic efforts notwithstanding, tens of thousands of schools—public and private—teach American children to hate not merely their country, but, if they are white, themselves. Aside from being the mark of an insane society, the psychological damage this does to innocent, impressionable children is unconscionable and incalculable.

We Don’t Merely Tolerate, but Celebrate Antiwhite Racism

This may be the most sensitive topic of all, the true third rail that no one on the wrong side is allowed to touch. Elite, establishment opinion in this country has become openly, giddily antiwhite. They get to say it—scream it, really—but if we object, or merely point it out, we are doubly demonized.

(I’ve refrained from making recommendations, but here I’ll make an exception. You have nothing to lose by calling out their antiwhite racism. They hate you on the basis of your race already. They might hate you a bit more for telling the truth about their hate, but that extra bit is negligible.)

I can’t think of another example in history when a country’s elites became opposed, on a frankly racial basis, to its majority population and founding stock. It surely bodes ill for our future.

Insane Enthusiasms Like Transgenderism Receive Little Pushback

We are now required to call women men, and vice versa, and to profess faith in an ever-expanding number of “genders.” We’re mutilating troubled children with surgeries and damaging them with drugs, often against their parents’ wishes. Indeed, some parents are punished for objecting.

I again wrack my brains to think of a … “fad” seems too insubstantial a word … quite so destructive and so obviously contrary to concrete reality that was nonetheless adopted, and then made mandatory, so quickly. We are literally cutting off children’s body parts in order to placate psychotic far-left activists. And just about every institution in our country—from government, to corporations, to (of course) the universities—have not merely gone along but are driving this barbarity.

If civilization survives the present epoch and recovers its senses—a big “if”—one easy prediction is that the transgender craze will be looked back upon as among the two or three most wantonly cruel mass delusions in human history.

We Have No Social Cohesion

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that America has close to zero remaining social cohesion. What do we have in common anymore? Not a culture, not patriotism, barely a language. We’re divided by race, class, region, religion (among those few who still believe), habits, tastes, and, of course, politics. We seem to agree on nothing. We can’t even talk to one another anymore. At best, the United States is just an economic zone filled with atomized consumers. The idea of us coming together on some grand national project is ludicrous. The prospects even of “live and let live” federalism seem vanishing.

The Ruling Class Hates the People

At our worst, we hate each other. I could pretend to be evenhanded here, but let’s face it, that hatred is driven by one side: coastal-credentialed-moneyed-liberal-elites, or whatever you want to call them. We all know who they are.

Red America resents Blue America for outsourcing its jobs and otherwise treating it with contempt. But Blue America hates Red with feverish intensity. We can speculate about the cause another time. The point here is that we have a ruling class that believes half the country, at least, is irredeemable: born evil and deserving of every fresh insult they can throw at it. A ruling class that, to boot, works tirelessly to further degrade social and economic conditions for tens of millions and then enjoys kicking them when they object. It’s a kind of sadism practiced by the worst Roman emperors but today spread across millions of credentialed mandarins.

Conservatism Is a Failure

Conservatism, both as an intellectual movement and as a set of institutions, was supposed to prevent all this. It didn’t. You could even argue that it abetted most of it. Where official conservatism’s opposition hasn’t been ineffectual, it’s been collaborationist.

If conservatism failed to prevent the disease, why should anyone believe it can provide a cure? Illnesses are easier to prevent than cure. What other cures do we have on hand? All I see are the same tired clichés that already brought us to the present morass.

Remoralization Never or Rarely Happens Within the Same Society or Regime

There are very few examples of a formerly moral or at least somewhat virtuous people becoming dissolute and then remoralizing absent some sort of collapse and reset. Some will point to Britain in the Victorian era. OK, let’s stipulate that. Can you think of any others?

What caused the Victorian example? It was, first, a religious movement led by dissenting Protestants and, second, the result of a widely expanding middle class insisting on “middle-class morality.” As to religion and the middle class in America, see above.

At any rate, the question before us is: Could we replicate the Victorian era’s resurgent morality? I for one don’t know how. I don’t think anyone else does, either.

Our Civilization Has Lost the Will to Live

The will to live is (supposedly) an ingrained natural human impulse. We reflexively recoil from physical harm. We instinctively defend ourselves from attack. We protect our own.

Or we used to. Today, as noted, our “civilization” lets criminals walk and punishes self-defense. It celebrates destruction, arson, and rioting. It mutilates and sterilizes children. It propagandizes people to despise themselves, their countries, and their histories. It guilt-trips them into having fewer children (“for the planet!”)—and then says that, to make up for the birth dearth, they must welcome endless waves of immigration. It brags “we can replace them”—and gaslights and demonizes those who notice and object to being replaced. Above all, it is in the process of transforming itself so fundamentally through demography that, in a few decades at most, it will no longer make sense to call this the same society. Another Celebration Parallax: if you’re for that, you can say it; if not, it’s a “racist conspiracy theory.” Whatever. There seems to be, on one side, intense eagerness to see the project through and, on the other, insufficient will to stop it.

This, then, is the pessimistic case for our present and future. Assuming present trends continue is said to be a logical fallacy. But assuming they won’t, especially when they’ve been worsening for two generations, is wishful thinking.

But perhaps there is optimism in pessimism. Is it really pessimistic to predict (or hope) that a rotten system will give way to something better? I don’t know what the future holds. But to call “optimistic” the assertion that the present regime has a long time to run presupposes that one favors it.

This essay was adapted from Up from Conservatism: Revitalizing the Right After a Generation of Decay, published by Encounter Books.

Michael Anton, a former National Security Council staffer in the Trump White House, is a lecturer in politics at Hillsdale College’s Washington, DC, campus and a senior fellow of the Claremont Instit…

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