Douthat, with typical ease, sets out the facts on American prosperity vis-à-vis our national birthrate. The picture is grim.
Last week, the Pew Research Center reported that U.S. birthrates hit the lowest rate ever recorded in 2011, with just 63 births per 1,000 women of childbearing age. (The rate was 71 per 1,000 in 1990.) For the first time in recent memory, Americans are having fewer babies than the French or British.
Douthat does leave open the possibility, however, that this is a temporary blip, and that better economics might restore things to back above the drowning level. But it won't be easy.
Such decadence need not be permanent, but neither can it be undone by political willpower alone. It can only be reversed by the slow accumulation of individual choices, which is how all social and cultural recoveries are ultimately made
Enter Pecknold, MacIntyre, and the invaluable weight of non-political calculating. In sum: if we want to achieve real progress as a society, we need to ask the right—and oftentimes flatly unpopular—questions.
Most importantly, perhaps, Douthat and Pecknold point independently to the core of maybe the biggest problem that we as Americans face. Namely, that the trend to tie cultural hopes to the prospect of national identity and stability is near-sighted; and that something more basic will be the cause of any genuine resurgence in American progress and prosperity.
The common denominator between higher birthrates and the sort of non-political reasoning espoused by Pecknold is an authentic concern for timeless goods—a view that also realizes their incommensurability with more proximate, passing goods. (Not, of course, that the two need to be opposed; instead, a simple understanding that choosing and enjoying the former does not entail securing the latter.) This view flies in the face of convention; it even defies—or at least surpasses—the most articulate and considered arguments for American patriotism. As it turns out, concern for timeless goods is a pre-political investment, but one required for any real political success.
To go a step further, failure to make such pre-political investments results not just in stagnation, but even in social and cultural "decadence," to follow Douthat. If the great American tradition of blaming Europe for our problems is to be preserved—and as Douthat alludes, the stability mindset is very European, indeed—then so should its parallel: i.e., learning from European history the basis for everything that's worked throughout the over-two centuries of our national lifespan. Sovereign debt crises notwithstanding, Europe of the early twenty first century is largely a "stable" phenomenon. It's newfound national identities promote a type of political cooperation that was unimaginable for centuries. On the other hand, Europe has sacrificed its ability to act efficaciously—both for the sake of individual nations as well as the whole of European society. This sacrifice has created a vacuum, into which hopes for true cultural progress must be hurled, but which offers little opportunity for their success.
In short, the European situation exemplifies the "survival mode" approach to stability taken by way of our own domestic worldview, at present. God, family, and local identity are traded for a promise of political longevity. Birthrates drop. And we can barely imagine that our faith and values might actually conflict with the commonsense notion to choose, politically, the lesser of two evils.
Indeed, there's no question that political stability is what's best for a nation. The better question might be, however, is a nation that demands political stability above all else what's best for us?