We are all living in private caves (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)


August 8, 2023   4 mins

“Every nation gets the government it deserves,” wrote the philosopher Joseph de Maistre, and some are getting it good and hard right now. De Maistre’s moral interpretation of politics admits of exceptions, but the United States in 2023 is not one of them. A wasting tide of bad education and corruption is rotting the cultural and constitutional piers that, since the Civil War, have kept the US above the waters of chaos.

The American regime has become a tawdry theatrocracy in which political actors, hypokritai in Greek, play stock characters in a loathsome farce. In the run-up to the 2024 elections, Donald Trump stars as the persecuted saviour, and Joe Biden the righteous defender, of the American republic. Never mind that Trump is self-absorbed and impulsive to the point of criminal stupidity, that Biden is senile and evidently corrupt, and that both of these braying, boorish old men are fraudsters and fabulists. These vices do not matter to their furious followers, who love their man precisely because he is not the hated other. Trump and Biden cannot, and will not, be separated; each needs his opponent as the hammer needs the nail. And above the wretched spectacle sit a click-hungry media, feeding on riot and picking favourites like vulturous pagan gods.

This drama of political decadence defies easy categorisation. Aristotle wrote that tragedy depicts people who are better, and comedy worse, than us spectators. Biden and Trump are certainly worse than those who voted them into office, but they are not remotely funny. Their antics are repellent and their goofiness unlovable. Observing them and the choral leaders that follow in their train — jerky puppets like Rudy Giuliani sweating hair-dye, or Anthony Fauci claiming to be science itself — Americans feel only shame and dread, without the cathartic release of laughter or tears.

These trapped emotions spring from the same source. They are visceral responses to the approaching death by senescence of the American experiment in ordered liberty. The problem goes well beyond presidential dementia. The US Senate (from the Latin senex, “old”) looks more like the waiting room of a geriatric neurologist than a council of wise elders. There’s Mitch McConnell, prone to falls and freeze-ups; wheelchair-bound and confused Dianne Feinstein; and John Fetterman, who at only 53 is less fit for public service than any other member of that formerly august body. It’s as if C-SPAN, a network that televises congressional hearings, decided instead to air absurdist, post-apocalyptic horror films.

The zombification of the Capitol — not to mention our city streets, which have become permanent encampments of the dazed and disturbed — is merely a symptom of the underlying disease. Like all institutions, politics falls apart without regular infusions of constructive energy. A modern democracy is healthy only if its major parties grow organically from their voters, representing their interests by habit and inclination even more than conscious effort.

But the grassroots politics Tocqueville admired when he visited the US in the 1830s gave way long ago to the top-down astroturfing of technocratic managerialism. Our governing elites represent no one but themselves and their cronies, and they don’t welcome shocks to the system. Insurgent candidates such as Robert Kennedy Jr. and Vivek Ramaswamy, whose public elevation of the concerns of many Americans aims to revitalise national politics, are censored and met with active resistance, even by their own parties.

It’s not just in politics that the wellsprings of individual and social vitality have dried up. Americans are marrying less and later, and having too few children, to reproduce themselves and the families that nurtured them. What is more, our public schools have largely ceased to transmit the accumulated knowledge and civilisational wisdom of the past to the children we do have. A taste for historical repudiation has taken hold across the culture, leading curators to “contextualise” art, city governments to take down statues, colleges to rename buildings, and publishers to censor or rewrite books. But creativity withers when it ceases to be nourished by the oxygenated blood of the tradition. Little wonder that Hollywood increasingly cannibalises its legacy by pouring old films into new plastic scripts.

Technology has exacerbated our national enervation. We have become charging-stations for our smartphones, which drain psychic energy with insistent distractions and overloads of information-babble. Video calls and work-from-home limit in-person interactions with actual existing individuals, who would otherwise be together for most of their weekly waking hours. Targeted advertising, fine-tuned algorithms, and politically stratified social media sharply decrease our exposure to new ideas. We are immuring ourselves within our own private caves, watching flickering images in darkness.

AI language-learning models offer a cautionary parable of these larger cultural developments. Programs such as ChatGPT, whose writing remains formulaic and prone to errors, learn by sifting through a sea of digitalised text, a growing share of which consists of AI-generated content. The predictable result of this feedback loop is the kind of levelling we’ve seen across our institutions. Like newspapers that drink their own ink — and which ones don’t, these days? — their product can only get worse.

Cultural exhaustion, social withdrawal, and the general enfeeblement of life forces are the practical expression of a will to nothing. There is a name for this spiritual and intellectual condition, and it is nihilism. Nihilism is demonic to the extent that the will to nothing is still a will, a life force. That it is only a negative one is by no means reassuring, because it is easier and more economical to tear down than to build up. Destruction is dramatic and accomplishes the illusion of vitality with relatively little energy. And who in this apocalyptic time, including the nihilist, doesn’t want to feel even a little alive?


Jacob Howland is Provost and Director of the Intellectual Foundations Program at UATX, commonly known as the University of Austin. His latest book is Glaucon’s Fate: History, Myth, and Character in Plato’s Republic (Paul Dry Books, 2018).