Conservatives, temperamentally respectful of the past, uncertain about the present, and doubtful of the future, are often inclined to embrace the notion that their age is one of decadence. We at The Weekly Standard have tended to resist this temptation. While we might admire works like Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence, while we might enjoy an occasional dip into the more apocalyptic waters of Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West, while we might quote a few lines from the great and mordant Philip Larkin, we're perhaps too American to turn our backs on the future.
But even we would have to acknowledge that this election season has challenged our usual optimism. Presidents matter, and it's no small thing that the two major-party candidates present the American people with the worst choice since their forefathers had to choose between James Buchanan and John C. Frémont 160 years ago (and this may be unfair to Frémont). If Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump is progress, we could do with less of it.
But this past week brought glimmers of hope, flashes of reassurance, that perhaps we are not living in fin de siècle America. Perhaps we're merely living through the twilight of the baby boomers. And it's perhaps fitting that the final boomer president will be either a narcissistic draft dodger, like the first, or a votary of identity politics and the nanny state, like the third. Three baby boomer presidents would have been enough. But we're likely to be saddled with a fourth before we can move on.
And move on we eventually will. Indeed, two Americans who made news this week suggest that we might be moving on up rather than continuing to slide down after 2020. One is Evan McMullin, the 40-year-old former CIA operative who stepped forward to offer voters a better choice for president in as many states as it will still be possible to get on the ballot or arrange for a write-in campaign—which will probably turn out to be the great majority of the states. McMullin is an impressive young man who has served his country well and cares about its future. What's more, he's shown himself willing to brave ridicule from those sitting on the sidelines—a ridicule that is, dare one say, characteristic of an age of decadence. This condescension of the onlookers, proud of their cleverness, stands in striking contrast to the courage and public-spiritedness of McMullin. As for those conservatives who can't get beyond the fact that McMullin has slim odds of success, we remind them of the words of the philosopher Leo Strauss: "A conservative, I take it, is a man who despises vulgarity; but the argument which is concerned exclusively with calculations of success, and is based on blindness to the nobility of the effort, is vulgar."
The day after McMullin announced his candidacy, primary elections were held in Wisconsin. All the attention went to the overwhelming victory of Paul Ryan over his Trumpian opponent, itself a sign that Trumpism may not reach that far beyond the man himself. But over in northeast Wisconsin, 31-year-old Mike Gallagher, who served seven years on active duty as a human intelligence and counterintelligence officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, and who campaigned on traditional conservative themes, won an easy primary victory over a longtime state legislator.
Gallagher has emphasized rebuilding America's defenses, perhaps not surprising for someone completing a Ph.D. in national security studies from Georgetown University and with real-world experience fighting America's enemies. And like Ryan, and unlike Trump, Gallagher has embraced "patient-centered, free-market reforms" in health care and overhauling federal spending. A local talk radio host assessing the race wrote that Gallagher's opponent "seemed to pattern his campaign [after] Donald Trump's" and concluded that voters' rejection of his "Trumpian tactics" was a "major factor" in Gallagher's win. If not dragged down too much in November by the top of the ticket, Gallagher should become a member of Congress, a body that will very much benefit from his intelligent and principled presence.
So perhaps our prospect need not be one of decline and decadence. Perhaps the likes of McMullin and Gallagher—the 9/11 Generation, as we've called them before—are the future. Perhaps the baby boomers have simply saved the worst for last, and Trump and Clinton are merely the final gasp of a decadent interlude. Let us hope so. The rise of a new generation can't come too soon.